Of gomphotheres, early American Indians, the Lazarus effect and the end of the world

Sometime during 2007, a rancher in the northern Mexican state of Sonora took a visitor to see large bones he had found in an arroyo, or creek bed. The visitor was Guadalupe Sanchez, who works for Mexico’s INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia). It turns out that the bones were not the only item that piqued Guadalupe’s interest; several stone implements were found in association with them. What makes this discovery so very special and highly interesting is the kind of animal the bones belonged to and the nature of the stone tools.

After two years of hushed up investigations, the scientists recently announced that these bones represent two juvenile gomphotheres and the tools belong to the so-called Clovis tradition, a topic which has been the subject of earlier blog entries . The focus here is not on who came first, Clovis or others (that argument has been settled anyway), but rather on the implications of the find of the Gomphothere bones together with Paleoindian tools like those of the Clovis tradition. That is what is drawing the attention of a lot of North American archaeologists these days. In a nutshell, what we have here is described as “the first documentation that there was some sort of human interaction with gomphotheres in North America.”

What in the world is a gomphothere?

WPHubeiPlatybeladonThink of gomphotheres as a type of early elephant, but a strange looking one.
Imagine an elephant-sized animal, with a trunk and tusks pointing straight forward. Then add to that picture a lower jaw with two protruding teeth and voilà, you have a pretty good idea of what our gomphothere looks like.

When were they supposed to have been around?

Considered to have been the most successful and diverse group of Elephants or Proboscideans, these animals thrived during the late Miocene (9 – 8  million years ago) and the Pliocene (5.3 – 1.8 million years ago). The traditional wisdom – up until recently – was that their North American representatives survived the longest in Florida.

Lazarus effect

With dates like these, it would appear then that the jolly pachyderms disappeared about 1.788 million years (give or take a few thousand years) before the earliest humans started walking around in North America. The recent discoveries made at “El fin del Mundo” upended this conventional wisdom. Animals considered long gone by the time of the arrival of the first Americans, now seems to have survived until that point in time. Resurrected from the dead, as one scientist intimated.

The site got its foreboding name because of its very remote location on a ranch in the Rio Sonora watershed. However, being remote is a relative term. Once the news breaks, it is no longer a secret and people will find their way to the site. That is why scientists waited for two years to announce their discovery. This gave them ample time to get a good start on the work that needs to be done.

According to Dr. Vance Holliday, a University of Arizona anthropologist, this is the first time gomphothere fossils were found together with implements made by Clovis people and because of this association, this find has major implications.

Saber-tooth Cat Skull
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ryan Somma

Instead of completely disappearing 1.8 million years ago, some Gomphotheres seem to have survived until relatively recently. Our mental image of early man in the Americas encountering and hunting mammoths and mastodon now has to include Gomphotheres as well. In addition to giant hyenas and sabertooth cats, humans also developed a taste for these creatures.

Are all the gomphotheres gone now?

Even though they survived much longer than originally suggested, gompotheres are no longer with us. However, these lumbering leviathans have been immortalized in a number of outdoor statues, as you can see here, here and here.

One if by land, two if by sea

Atlantic Ocean

The ocean blue.
Creative Commons License photo credit: Matti Mattila

When Columbus sailed the ocean blue and finally set foot on the shores of the New World, there were people there to greet him. Roughly 500 years before Columbus, when the Vikings sailed across the North Atlantic and reached what is now Newfoundland, there were people there too. In the latter case, the encounter did not work out too well for the Vikings.

In both of these cases, we know that there was an existing population. This is not late breaking news. What might be news is a renewed interest in sea travel by the earliest settlers of the Americas.

Notice the word “renewed.” A review of hypotheses pertaining to the arrival of the First Americans confirms the old adage of “nothing new under the sun.” In general terms, two hypotheses have been put forward to account for the arrival of early inhabitants; a coastal route and a migration across land, better known as the Bering Land Bridge.

The idea of a coastal migration route is not new and predates the Bering Land Bridge idea. The discovery of early sites (known to us as Clovis sites) well in the interior of North America once supported the notion that perhaps people came across land and marched into the interior, instead of following the shorelines of Ancient America.

This view reinforced the important role the Bering Land Bridge must have played. While the land bridge connecting Siberia with Alaska was enormous, there remained one problem that needed an explanation. At the time of the land migration, Ice Age glaciers covered a huge swath of North America. How would these first Americans have been able to cross such a formidable barrier?

Creative Commons License photo credit: chadmagiera

A solution was suggested in 1935, when Ernst Antev came up with the concept of an ice-free corridor. This corridor was thought to have been substantially wide, at least from a human’s perspective, and no less than 1,500 miles long. According to Antev, it connected Alaska with the ice free portions of the US.

This hypothesis was accepted, or at least considered, by the archaeological community for quite a while. It was a bold statement to make, especially since, in the 1930s, our understanding of the geology of that part of the Americas was limited. Basic topographic mapping of the area from Northern Yukon to Northern Montana was not completed until the 1950s. It was not until the 1990s that systematic geology mapping  was completed for this region.

At this point we need to step back a little. While ideas and hypotheses can be great and mind-blowing, there is something that occasionally will upend even the most elegant mental constructions: actual data.

So here we are, at the beginning of the 21st century, slowly coming to grips that this so-called ice-free corridor may not have existed after all when the earliest settlers were supposed to have migrated through it on their way south. The pendulum was moving again in favor of the coastal route hypothesis, causing archaeologists to again wonder: what evidence do we have that people came over by boat?

One argument used by both supporters and detractors of the coastal route hypothesis  is that such evidence is currently covered by hundreds of feet of water. Therefore, at first glance, it would appear to be very difficult to prove or disprove the existence of such a migration route, because any artifacts left behind are out of reach.

Or are they?

rising sun
Earlt human artifacts have been found
along the North American coastline.
Creative Commons License photo credit: sun dazed

In the late 1990s, researchers working off the Pacific Coast of Canada set out to find locations where people may have stopped on their way south. Such locations might be river valleys (now submerged) or beaches (equally submerged).  In 1998 a Canadian research team did find an artifact at a depth of 53 meters off the Coast of the Queen Charlotte Islands. It was eventually dated at 10,200 years ago. Such a find is the archaeological equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. It has led to more extensive underwater probes elsewhere.

What can we say about prehistoric travel across water? How was it done? Aside from looking under water for any remains of prehistoric water craft, we could also look at other ways to prove that prehistoric peoples had the ability to cross substantial bodies of water. Here are some pointers.

Greater Australia was colonized by humans about 50,000 years ago. At that time, there was no land bridge connecting Australia to Southeast Asia. People crossed the water into Australia and became the people we now know as the Aborigines. A second pointer is obsidian recovered at a site south of Tokyo, was sourced back to Kozushima Island, a feat which required deep water crossing. This happened around 32,000 years ago. Thirdly, the first known settlers arrived in New Britain and New Ireland between 20,000 – 15,000 years ago. This feat also required travel across water. 

What these examples show is that prehistoric people did have the ability to cover substantial distances across water. Because of this, one should not rule out a similar undertaking by the first migrants into the Americas. Indeed, the discovery of the stone tool mentioned earlier points in that direction.

As time goes by, and more discoveries are made by underwater archaeologists, we should get a better handle on this still murky issue.

A major step forward – 40,000 years ago

Ask any scientists what gets people all riled up within their field of expertise and you will get plenty of answers. Outsiders may think that these individuals, who are scientists and are supposed to be logical and even minded about things, have gone bonkers. Yet that is the way things are in many areas of scientific endeavor.

Take for example the hot button topic within the field of archaeology concerned with dating the arrival of the first human beings in the Americas. Some have argued that this interest, going back many generations, is, in fact part of a “Seventy year itch” within the field of archaeology.

So let’s see what this is all about.

Creative Commons License photo credit: mitchgibis

There are many fascinating aspects related to the peopling of the New World, some of which I intend to write about in future contributions, but one of these is undoubtedly the most contentious of all: when did people arrive? In an earlier blog (Beyond Clovis) I wrote about the “Clovis First” school of thought and those who accepted Pre-Clovis human presence in the Americas.

As outlined in this earlier blog, most of the evidence pointing to human presence pre-dating the so-called Clovis people pushes the boundaries back by perhaps one thousand years. While that is certainly nothing to sneeze at, what would you say to those who are proposing to push the arrival of humans in the Americas back to 40,000 years ago, almost 30,000 years earlier than Clovis? Now there is something to chew on.

Creative Commons License photo credit: BradWright79

Reports coming out of Central Mexico over the last few years have referred to fossilized footprints preserved in volcanic ash in that region. The research team that made the initial discovery in 2003 was led by Silvia Gonzalez who works at the John Moores University (JMU), in Liverpool. That year she was visiting a site at Cerro Toluquilla in the Valsequillo Basin, located near Puebla, about 100km southeast of Mexico City.

What caught people’s attention was the date associated with these footprints: they were said to be 40,000 years old.

Such a notion of great antiquity has ensured great attendance at scientific meetings. If this early date is accepted, it will blow the “Clovis First” hypothesis clean out of the water. However, when these findings were first published, the dates were dismissed as improbable and wrong, going back instead to no less than 1.3 million years ago. Some even suggested that the footprints were not, in fact, footprints, but pure geological phenomena that just happened to look like a footprint. This is where things remained for a few years, at least to outsiders. I am sure that the researchers involved in the project remained intensely interested in the dates and whether or not we were looking at real human footprints or else just tricks Mother Nature had up her sleeve for us. 

Researchers have now reaffirmed the originally suggested date of 40,000 years. This is the equivalent of throwing another big rock in the pond of Paleoindian archaeology. I am sure there will be pushback again and we will see where this ends up.

I have a feeling however, that these footprints could be a turning point in the field of Paleoindian studies. If the dates hold up, then scientists have a whole lot more questions to address. Such a development would also prove the way in which science moves: for every answer we find, ten new questions pop up.

Exciting stuff.

10,000 BC: The Story Behind the Date

Hollywood has been known to produce a movie or two on prehistoric and historic themes. On March 7, another title will be added to that list: 10,000 BC. The trailer promises all kinds of spectacular imagery: a satellite view of planet Earth as all the city lights go out; warriors fighting amongst themselves as well as against mammoths; there is even a frightening scene in which a human and a saber tooth cat come face-to-face (literally).

I know that this is escapism at its best. I will probably go see this film too; I might even give it two opposable thumbs up. However, how about we travel back to the real 10,000 B.C. and see for ourselves what really went on at that time?

By 10,000 B.C., humans had made it to the Americas. There is plenty debate about when exactly modern humans made it to the New World. The people traditionally believed to be walking around here 12,000 years ago are called the “Clovis people”. Our current understanding of who got here first has changed, but that is a topic for a future blog.

The Clovis people were hunters and gatherers, and they left behind a good number of archaeological sites throughout North America. By this time, mammoths and mastodons are becoming extinct. Some scientists point an accusing finger at human hunters, others blame that event on a meteorite.

In the Old World, the New Stone Age, or Neolithic, had begun. With it, we see the beginnings of animal domestication. With animal and plant domestication, our ancestors began agriculture. This was a major shift away from the traditional hunting-and-gathering way of life. This change laid the foundation for sedentary lifestyles, as the practice of living in one spot is called.

Architecture starts, first, very humbly. However, these very first dwellings and food storage areas eventually culminate in the “mile-high” sky scrapers of the 21st century.

By 10,000 B.C., the earliest pottery is produced in Japan. On mainland Asia, developments are not far behind: stable agricultural communities dot the countryside in what is now China.  Further West, in what is now Israel and Lebanon, the Natufian people are experimenting with plants as well, setting the stage for agriculture in this part of the world. In Europe, people to move further north as the last Ice Age comes to an end. 

So what does 10,000 B.C. really represent? Rampaging herds of mammoths? A myriad of busy workers building pyramids? A threatening tête-à-tête between a human and a saber tooth cat?


10,000 B.C. is a date that roughly marks the earliest known transition from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and animal domestication. Villages, towns and cities soon followed. Writing eventually came about as well, as a means of keeping track of wealth. Schools were not far behind.

Now that’s progress.