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

November 8, 2014
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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.

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

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