south america
November 19, 2015

Evidence shows earliest Americans arrived 6,000 years earlier than believed

New evidence uncovered at the Monte Verde site in southern Chile has now provided further evidence that the earliest known Americans became established in South America even earlier than previously thought.

For many decades, it was believed that the Americas were first populated some 13,000 years ago by big-game hunters from Asia, known as the Clovis people. Evidence of their culture was especially apparent in their distinctly-shaped, pointed stone projectiles, known as Clovis points. However, in more recent decades, the Monte Verde site in Chile revealed that, in fact, some American human populations pre-dated the arrival of the Clovis people.

The evidence found there pushed back the 13,000-year estimation another 1,500 years, when the remains of settlements that used a different kind of stone tool technology were discovered at a Monte Verde site known as MVII. Further evidence at another nearby location, known as MVI, yielded then-inconclusive evidence that indicated the advent of humans was even younger.

Now, archaeologists from Vanderbilt University have taken another look at Monte Verde, in an attempt to find new insights and data on the mysterious humans who passed through—and they’ve already made some new discoveries, according to their paper in PLOS ONE.

“We began to find what appeared to be small features—little heating pits, cooking pits associated with burned and unburned bone, and some stone tools scattered very widely across an area about 500 meters long by about 30 or 40 meters wide,” said Tom Dillehay, a Rebecca Webb Wilson University Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt, in a statement.

The stone tools were especially peculiar, featuring various styles of carving (both unifacial, or have one honed edge, and bifacial, having two) and unusual media.

“One of the curious things about it that is that unlike what we found before, a significant percentage, about 34 percent, were from non-local materials. Most of them probably come from the coast but some of them probably come from the Andes and maybe even the other side of the Andes,” said Dillehay.

Earliest Americans were highly mobile

This, taken with other discoveries such as the presence of plants from the Andes Mountains, indicates that the humans who camped in Monte Verde were highly mobile, traversing all across Chile.

The stone tools were part of a group of 39 total stone objects found, along with 12 fire pits; small, charred animal bones; and edible plant remains, like nuts and grasses. Akin to some of the plants, the animal remains recovered do not seem to have come from the Monte Verde area—they came from large animals, like mastodons, who likely would not have found enough vegetation to eat in the region—meaning the people at the site killed them elsewhere and cooked them onsite.

It now seems very likely that these people were nomadic hunter-gatherers, who camped at Monte Verde for perhaps a day or two before continuing forward.

“Where they’re going, we don’t know, and where they’re coming from, we don’t know, but this would have been a passageway from the coast to the foothills of the Andes,” Dillehay said.

Significantly older than Clovis people

The most exciting find, though, is the age of these new materials: According to radiocarbon dating, they range from 14,000 to nearly 19,000 years old—significantly older than the Clovis people.

These dates mean that the nomads lived in a challenging era. Monte Verde at that time was a sandur—a plain formed sediment deposited by glaciers—because the last Ice Age was in its death throes. The region was still quite cold year-round—and a volcano was active nearby.

Finally, around 15,000 years ago, the climate became warm enough to permit longer-term settlements, like those seen with the Clovis people.

But even now, knowing all these new facts, the researchers have found more questions than were answered.

“We now realize that the geology and the climate and the archaeology are much more complex than we ever calculated,” said Dillehay.


Feature Image: A tool used for woodworking made 15,000-16,000 years ago. Credit: Tom Dillehay