In search of the first settlers of the Americas, scientists keep finding surprises

The genus Homo, to which we belong, was the first to leave Africa and explore the world. Homo erectus, one of our ancestors, explored Asia and Europe as early as 1.8 million years ago. However, one huge landmass was left unexplored by these early humans: the Americas. Humanity did not reach this part of the globe until our own species, Homo sapiens, had evolved. We got there very late. Exactly how late is still a hot debate topic. However, once there, we spread rather fast across the landscape. To put things in perspective, it took these early pioneers a mere few thousand years to inhabit North, Central and South America; Ancient Egyptian history covers about the same amount of time.

What makes this dispersal across the landscape so remarkable is that these first Americans had to adapt to a wide range of landscapes, natural resources and climates. Their success in doing so reflects a great intellect and adaptability. Did they take in their new surroundings with a sense of awe and wonder? We will never know for sure, but I have a feeling they did. These earliest inhabitants of the New World did not have a name; archaeologists generally refer to them as Paleoindians, meaning “Ancient Indians.”  


This is a blog on one of the oldest known Paleoindians and her contemporaries.

Imagine a cave, a dark, damp and foreboding cavern forming an underground labyrinth more than a mile long. Some ten thousand years ago, in what is now Mexico, a young girl entered this cave. Most likely Naia was searching for water.

Yucatán does not have surface rivers, and people get water from caves or sinkholes. She never left. Welcome to Hoyo Negro, or Black Hole, the final resting place of one of the oldest known inhabitants of the Americas. Hoyo Negro is one of many cave complexes found on the Yucatán Peninsula in southern Mexico. The presence of stalagmites in Hoyo Negro tells us that the cave was dry at one point. 

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Map showing location of the Yucatán Peninsula.

Most of this peninsula is composed of limestone, which easily dissolves in water. Over time this leads to the formation of extensive cave systems, a phenomenon known as karst formation. Because of this, the peninsula is riddled with caves. Quite often, the roofs of these caves have collapsed, resulting in a sinkhole, or cenote.

Hoyo Negro is part of a larger system that is now completely flooded. In 2007 members of the Proyecto de Espeleología de Tulum (PET) discovered the cave. Their exploration was part of a three-year concentrated effort to map the underwater caves of the Ejido (township) of Jacinto Pat, some 20 km (about 12 miles) north of the city of Tulum, on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. What they found surpassed their wildest imagination.

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Quintana Roo (seen in red) is one of three Mexican states that make up the Yucatán Peninsula.

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Map showing the location of Tulum in the state of Quintana Roo.

At one point in their dive, the divers entered a huge cavern and noticed that their lights did not illuminate the opposite walls of this space. It was as if their lights got swallowed up by this huge “black hole,” and that is where the name of this cavern came from. As they reached the bottom of this huge space, they found the remains of an adolescent girl. As is tradition in anthropology, this prehistoric individual received a nickname, Naia.

Together with Naia’s well preserved remains, the divers found those of now long extinct animals dispersed throughout the cavern. Among these prehistoric animals were giant ground sloths, gomphotheres, saber-toothed cats, bears, pumas, peccaries. About ten thousand years ago, sea levels were about 300 feet lower than today; because of this, these animals could walk through the cave in search of water or refuge. Some never left.

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Cross section of the cave system of which Hoyo Negro is part.

How long ago did Naia enter this cave? The associated prehistoric megafauna had become mostly extinct by 13,000 years ago. Dating of the calcite that had encrusted her bones yielded a date of 12,000 years ago. Naia lived sometime between 13,000 and 12,000 years ago. At the time of writing, scientists are attempting to sequence Naia’s nuclear DNA in an attempt to better understand her relationship to other Paleoindians.

Naia was not the only person living in the Yucatán. As mentioned earlier, archaeologists refer to the earliest presence of humans in the Americas as the Paleoindian period. These were the true pioneers, arriving from Asia, as genetic studies show, penetrating a new world full of unknown plant and animal life, the latter encompassing mostly impressive megafauna. Paleoindians were Stone Age people, skilled in stone tool making. They eventually populated all of the Americas.

Our understanding of these earliest settlers has slowly expanded since the first stone tools were found embedded in the bones of extinct animals. In November 1932, a road crew working in eastern New Mexico unearthed a jumble of ancient giant animal bones. The following summer, Edgar B. Howard, an archaeology research associate at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, started a field project in that area. He encountered “matted masses of bones of mammoth,” and mixed in with the bones were slender, finger-long spear points—Clovis points, as we know them today. Wisely, Howard left them in place. Over time archaeologists found more sites with Clovis points, around 1,500 by 2011. Only in a small number of cases did the Clovis points appear in association with animal remains. It appears that the Clovis people were mostly gathering and fishing.

We are left with a lot of questions. Clovis points are unevenly distributed across the landscape.  Archaeologists have found more of them east of the Mississippi than west of that river. In the west, there are other stone tools made, generally referred to as Western Stemmed projectile points. Some of these seem to pre-date Clovis points, others are contemporary with them. What are we dealing with here? Who were these people? We cannot say for sure.

What the Western Stemmed projectile points have made clear is that there were humans here before Clovis points were made. Initially highly controversial, this presence is now widely accepted. One of the sites where pre-Clovis materials has been found in large quantities, is the Debra L. Friedkin site in central Texas.

Map showing the location of the Debra L. Friedkin site in central Texas.

Map showing the location of the Debra L. Friedkin site in central Texas.

This site is located in Central Texas, about 250 meters downstream from Gault, another famous Paleoindian site. Archaeological investigations, undertaken by Texas A&M University’s Center for the Study of First Americans, uncovered layers dating to Late Prehistoric, Late Archaic, Early Archaic, Paleoindian, Folsom, Clovis and the pre-Clovis horizons. The latter, known by its local name as the Buttermilk Creek Complex, dates to between 15,500 and 13,200 years ago. It pre-dates Clovis technology, which starts around 13,100 years ago, ending by 12,800 years ago. This makes it the “oldest credible archaeological site in North America,” according to Dr. Michael Collins.

More than 15,000 stone artifacts were retrieved, all of them made from Edwards chert, found in abundance in Central Texas. The majority of these artifacts consisted of the waste generated by stone tool making; only a very small number has been identified as tools. Moreover, these tools are small in size and lightweight, consistent with a highly mobile lifestyle. A small nodule of polished hematite was also retrieved. While thus far only stone tools have been found, some of these have wear that reflects use on both soft and hard materials. This raises the possibility that organic (and thus perishable) materials were also part of this assemblage.

Current thinking among archaeologists is that the Pre-Clovis people visited Buttermilk Creek to exploit the locally available chert, making stone tools and doing some animal butchering and/or wood working before moving on.  The techniques used to manufacture stone tools are seen as precursors to later Clovis technologies.

The last word on Paleoindians has not been said or written. There will always be new discoveries that help us better situate and understand these forbearers of modern American Indians. One wonders what they would make of our attempts to make sense of their lifestyle. What did we get right? Where did we go wrong?

Although Clovis points are no longer in use, they remain a symbol of this human sense of awe and wonder. It is doubtful that the Paleoindians realized they were moving ever deeper into a new continent. It is certain that they represent the final phase in human dispersal across our planet. It does not stop there, however. In December 1990, when the space shuttle Columbia launched, Commander Vance Brand took with him a ten thousand-year-old Paleo-Indian spear point that had been discovered on Colorado’s eastern plains. One wonders what the thundering liftoff of a NASA space shuttle might have looked like through the eyes of the earliest Americans, and what the next ten thousand years holds for human exploration of space in the solar system and beyond.

For those who read this before Nov 12, 2014, and are interested in knowing more, come listen to a lecture on Naia by Dr. Dominique Rissolo at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. This lecture is presented by the Archaeological Institute of America, Houston.

Anyone who is interested in reading more about this topic, can peruse a wide offering of academic publications, including those of the Center for the Study of First Americans at Texas A&M University.

Are we there yet? Dr. John Kappelman discusses Africa and the human evolutionary journey at HMNS

In the history of mankind, there have been three major migrations: two of these happened a long time ago, and one (of the “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” type) happened in our own lifetime. 

evolution astronautAbout 1.8 million years ago, hominids we call Homo erectus ventured outside Africa, wandering into Europe and Asia. Our own species evolved in East Africa around 200,000 years ago. About 50,000 years ago, Homo sapiens followed in Homo erectus’ footsteps, with significant numbers leaving Africa. Eventually they crossed Asia and made it all the way into the Americas.

Homo erectus model displayed at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany in 2007 (Image Wikimedia)

Homo erectus model displayed at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany in 2007 (Image from Wikimedia).

 On July 20, 1969, Homo sapiens marked another milestone, with the first step on the Moon. Today, we have a permanent presence in space, albeit it on a very limited scale. We have come a long way indeed.

Long before Homo erectus left Africa, other bipedal creatures roamed Africa. Among these was Australopithecus afarensis, a hominid first discovered in Ethiopia. In 1974, Donald Johanson and his team uncovered a well preserved specimen who was nicknamed Lucy, and shortly afterwards also Dinkenesh. 

AL 288-1, Australopithecus afarensis. Also known as “Lucy” or “Dinkenesh” (Image by Viktor Deak).

AL 288-1, Australopithecus afarensis. Also known as “Lucy” or “Dinkenesh”
(Image by Viktor Deak).

Lucy and her species have been the subject of many scientific studies. However, when she traveled to the United States for the second time in 2007 (the first time was in 1975, to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History), she underwent a scientific procedure never before applied to her: for 10 days, she resided on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, where she underwent a high resolution CT scan.

The scanned data was handed over to the government of Ethiopia and Mamitu Yilma, director of the National Museum in Addis Ababa. The successful completion of Lucy’s scan meant that the specimen is now safely archived in digital format — one of the reasons behind the scanning.

A small but dedicated team participated in the scanning project in Austin: 

Members of the scanning team included (from left) Ron Harvey, conservator, Lincolnville, Maine; Alemu Admassu, curator, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia;  John Kappelman, UT Austin; and Richard Ketcham, UT Austin.  The team used the ultra high-resolution Xradia MicroXCT scanner (background), for some of the scans.

Members of the scanning team included (from left) Ron Harvey, conservator, Lincolnville, Maine; Alemu Admassu, curator, National Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; John Kappelman, UT Austin; and Richard Ketcham, UT Austin. The team used the ultra high resolution Xradia MicroXCT scanner (background), for some of the scans.

Dr. John Kappelman has had a long-standing relation with the Houston Museum of Natural Science. He was one of many scientific advisors to the curator of anthropology when the exhibit featuring Lucy was prepared. His own research into human evolution is the topic of an upcoming presentation at the museum.

To find out if we are “there yet,” come listen to Dr. Kappelman on Tuesday, May 13 at 6:30 p.m.

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
The First Big Trip – Are We There Yet? Africa and the Human Journey
John Kappelman, Ph.D.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014, 6:30 p.m.
Click here to purchase advance tickets.

This lecture is cosponsored by Archaeology Institute of America – Houston Society as part of its 2013-2014 Innovations series.

The Pecos pictographs: River rock art shows why Texas is an archaeological oasis

Quick: What do Texas and France have in common?

Actually, I should rephrase that: Who do Texas and France have in common?

The answer? Dr. Jean Clottes, a leading French prehistorian.

It makes sense that a Frenchmen would love his country, but what is Dr. Clottes looking for in Texas? It turns out the answer is down to earth: rock art. In Dr. Clottes’ opinion, Texas rock art ranks right up there with rock art in La Douce France.

Anyone interested in rock art is most likely familiar with the famous painted prehistoric caves in France and Spain. Sites like Altamira and Lascaux are household names in the world of art history. Dr. Clottes has been heavily involved and invested in the study and preservation of Lascaux Cave. We were very lucky to have him as a speaker at the museum recently. He elaborated on cave art in general, and Cosquer cave in particular. Earlier in the day, he took a group of art history students from the University of Houston through an exhibit on Lascaux cave, currently at the Museum. He regaled us with stories about his own work at the cave. He patiently addressed recent newspaper reports of “another Lascaux” that allegedly exists near the original Lascaux cave.

What brought him to Texas, though, was rock art — to be more precise, rock art from the Lower Pecos. This art has been studied extensively, among others, by the Archaeological Institute of America, the Rock Art Foundation, SHUMLA and, of course Dr. Clottes and his Texas colleagues.

On Feb. 7 and 8, HMNS organized a trip to the Lower Pecos area to see this wonderful rock art. SHUMLA staff members Andrew Freeman, Jeremy Freeman, and Vicky Munoz led a group of 25 people to see two sites: White Shaman and Painted Shelter.

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HMNS travelers listen to Jeremy Freeman and Vicky Munoz at the White Shaman rock shelter.

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L to R: Vicky Munoz (adjusting her cap), Andrew Freeman, Jeremy Freeman.

Even though we were on the Texas-Mexico border, there was a thin coating of frost on the windows of our van. As the day progressed, however, we enjoyed a beautiful blue sky with plenty of sunlight.

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“Severe winter conditions” in Del Rio, Texas.

Our first stop was Seminole Canyon State Park, located 9 miles west of Comstock on U.S. Hwy. 90, just east of the Pecos River bridge. In North America, this is an area with a long history of human presence. The park’s website informs us that:

“Early man first visited this area 12,000 years ago, a time when now-extinct species of elephant, camel, bison, and horse roamed the landscape. The climate at that time was more moderate than today and supported a more lush vegetation that included pine, juniper, and oak woodlands in the canyons, with luxuriant grasslands on the uplands. These early people developed a hunting culture based upon large mammals, such as the mammoth and bison. No known evidence exists that these first inhabitants produced any rock paintings.”

Over time, climatic conditions changed, and humans had to adapt. Some 7,000 years ago, the landscape looked much like today.

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Landscape looking toward the Pecos River with modern bridge crossing. With the exception of the bridge, this is what early Texans would have seen as well.

There is a reason why archaeologists and art historians are drawn to this area. One can find more than 200 pictograph sites here; they contain rock paintings ranging from single images to caves containing panels of art hundreds of feet long.

This is where we visited the White Shaman site. This is a rock shelter, rather than a cave. It contains a pictographic panel measuring four by eight meters (about 13 by 26 feet). The panel depicts more than 30 anthropomorphic (human-shaped) figures. Some of these are impaled, some are even shown as skeletons. We also saw zoomorphs (animal-shaped figures): red deer, all impaled. Finally, our guides pointed out images that defy interpretation, such as more than 100 dots, occurring all over the panel. A serpent-like figure divides the panel in two. Crenelated lines are present as well.

The name of the rock shelter, White Shaman, is derived from the white figure appearing in the center of the panel.

The name of the rock shelter, White Shaman, is derived from the white figure appearing in the center of the panel.

This rock art, commonly dated back to the Middle Archaic, about 4,000 years ago, is among the oldest known in North America.

After a delicious barbecue lunch, we went on to visit a second rock art site — this one on private property. After a bumpy ride, we got to see Painted Shelter.

Painted shelter, which has water at its base.

Painted shelter, which has water at its base.

Known since at least 1937, the art here shows human figures (including one with a bow), as well as animals (deer-like figures, a bird, and a catfish).

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This is Painted Shelter, showing representations of deer-like animals as well as two human figures, one of whom is holding a bow.

The Pecos River rock art has been studied for many years. As early as 1849, Captain C. French reported on Indian paintings he saw near the mouth of the Pecos River. In the 1930s, a systematic effort to record and study Pecos Rock Art started. These efforts continued into the 1950s. The construction of Lake Amistad spurred on further research in the 1960s.

The role of museums in the scientific study of ancient Texas, and subsequent dissemination of scholarly knowledge, should not be underestimated here either. In the early 1980s, the Witte Museum in San Antonio brought together archaeologists, paleobotanists, art historians, and anthropologists to investigate the lifestyle of the ancient inhabitants of the Lower Pecos region. Rice University started their Pecos Project around the same time, drawing on different fields of study to help decipher Pecos art. By the late 1980s, it was possible to date rock art using AMS technology, an advanced form of radiocarbon dating.

Recently, one person has been in the forefront of Pecos Rock Art research: Dr. Carolyn Boyd. Since her graduate student days in the 1990s, she has spent most of her career exploring and studying rock art. Author of Rock Art of the Lower Pecos, Dr. Boyd is currently working on a new publication. On Feb. 25, she will give a lecture on her latest research at HMNS. For more information, click here.

Until Mar. 23, you can also come see our exhibit Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux. If you are interested in early expressions of art from both the Old and New World, make sure you catch both events.

Tales from Tanzania: Water, bricks & the ingenuity of Tanzanians

The hard work and ingenuity of the Tanzanians never ceases to amaze me. While traveling one day, we passed the man you see in the photo below, and several more like him. When I asked Simon (my driver guide for the day) what was going on, he explained that they were hauling water.

A water pipeline is provided near every major road and you are welcome to connect to it — but if you do, you get a monthly bill. As most people are unable to afford the connection or the monthly bill, they collect water from the public water point in town and haul it to their homes.

DSCN1399A little while later we passed several structures like this one. Can you guess what it is?

DSCN1217Don’t worry, it took me a minute to figure it out too. It’s a brick furnace.

The locals in this area make bricks out of volcanic rock and clay. When the bricks are dry to the touch, they are stacked into a chimney and baked in place for three or four days in a slow, low fire furnace of their own making. When the bricks change to a dark red color, they are ready for use. They are said to be superior to cinder blocks (another favorite building material here) in every way because they have a bit of flexibility to them and won’t crumble in an earthquake.

Kwa heri!