The First Americans? South Carolina’s Controversial Topper Site Yields New Secrets

Until fairly recently, the earliest human settlement date in North America was believed to have been around 14,000 years ago, placing early humans on the continent toward the end of the last ice age.

However, in January it was announced that this date for early human arrival in the Americas was pushed back another 10,000 years. With the help of staff with Oxford University’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, professor Ariane Burke of Université de Montréal’s Department of Anthropology, along with doctoral student Lauriane Bourgeon, were able to date artifacts retrieved from the Bluefish Caves site in northern Yukon, Alaska, to around 24,000 years Before Present (BP).

The site at the Bluefish Caves first became an item of interest within the archaeological community in 1977, where the first of several excavations began under the oversight of Jacques Cinq-Mars. Animal bones which appeared to display evidence of human working that were found there, and the subsequent radiocarbon dating of these items, led Cinq-Mars to propose that human settlement in the region might go as far back as 30,000 BP; an astounding estimate, as it would have place human arrival in the region at the height of the last Glacial Maximum.

With the more recent assessments, the Bluefish Caves remain one of several pre-Clovis era archaeological sites in North America (that is, sites which pre-date the Clovis culture, once believed to represent the earliest humans to arrive in North America and settle here, between around 11,500 and 13,300 years BP). Such locations have helped rewrite the history of early migrations onto the continent, and in addition to Bluefish Caves, several similar sites exist, like Cactus Hill in Virgina, Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania, the Paisley Five Mile Point Caves in Oregon, and the Buttermilk Creek site in Texas, to name a few.

Amidst the confirmed pre-Clovis archaeological sites, there are also more controversial locales which have kept the academic community guessing. In fact, until the recent studies with artifacts retrieved at Bluefish Caves during the 1970s and 80s, this locale had also ranked among such “controversial” sites. Still, perhaps none of the proposed pre-Clovis sites has managed to stir up more dissent and controversy than the Topper Site, located in Allendale County, South Carolina.

Topper site excavation (photo by Dan Connover, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial- Share Alike 3.0 United States License).

Excavations at Topper began in 1986, although the site was first identified five years earlier by University of South Carolina archaeologist Albert Goodyear, who found the location with the help of a local forester named John Topper. Goodyear identified the location as a quarry site, where ancient paleoindians would extract Allendale Coastal Plain chert for use in their lithic tools. Archaic occupation was evident during Goodyear’s early excavations in 1986, although by the late 1990s, an extensive Clovis presence in deeper strata became evident, resulting in the recovery of thousands of artifacts.

Topper’s confirmation as Clovis site was significant, largely due to the fact that it is one of the few Clovis sites located in the southeast coastal regions. The Allendal chert indigenous to this area also yields a very unique variety of lithics, known today as ‘redstones’ (see image below). Today, Albert Goodyear is recognized not only for the initial identification and excavations at Topper, but also as the authority on the unique Redstone lithic samples found in the region.

Replica of a South Carolina “Redstone” bifacial lithic, displaying the point’s distinctive fluting. (Photo by the author).

However, the Clovis-era discoveries weren’t all of the secrets Topper would yield. Beneath the Clovis level strata at the site rests two meters of Pleistocene era alluvial sand, with another two meters of clay below that. Between these two layers, a famous array of artifacts known as “The Topper Assemblage” was discovered, placing the artifacts two meters deeper within the earth than the documented Clovis layer. This, of course, would seem to suggest a much earlier occupation by visitors to the quarry area, who as the Clovis people after them had done, came there for the site’s rich mineral deposits. Optically stimulated luminescence dating of the soil was determined to date back to as much as 15,200 years BP, according to studies by archaeologist Michael Waters of Texas A & M University in the late 1990s. However, further testing at the site suggests that some of the lithic artifacts recovered from deeper strata at Topper could date as far back as an unprecedented 50,000 years BP, if not earlier.

Exciting though the discoveries at Topper had seemed to be, claims that the artifacts recovered there were conclusively pre-Clovis were met with much criticism and skepticism, with notable opponents that included Michael B. Collins of Texas State University. Topper remains an item of controversy within the archaeological community, with many archaeologists refusing to acknowledge the lithic assemblages found beneath it’s Clovis layers as legitimate pre-Clovis discoveries. But with mounting evidence of earlier human occupations in North America turning up at sites like the Bluefish Caves, perhaps Topper’s earlier legacy cannot be ruled out after all.

Newer studies have continued at Topper as well, though, and among the most recent had been the 2015 doctoral dissertation of Tennessee graduate student Douglas Sain, whose work was discussed by J.M. Adovasio and David Pedler in their 2016 book, Strangers in a New Land: What Archaeology Reveals About the First Americans. What the authors had to say of Sain’s thesis seems promising for long-time Topper advocates:

Sain has concluded that the pre-Clovis Topper Assemblage artifacts are indeed genuine, and that a small sample of the tools show microscopic evidence of human use in the form of edge polish (the smoothing of sharp edges via repetitive action), striadons (fracture lines resulting from contact with another object), residue (plant or animal material adhering to the artifact), and edge damage (chipping of the ardfact’s edge through use). His research has also concluded that the Topper Assemblage artifacts are indeed in situ, and hence did not migrate downward into the deposit from overlying archaeological levels. It remains to be seen what the professional archaeological community will make of Sain’s findings, but if the Topper Assemblage finds widespread acceptance a radical reworking of our understanding of pre-Clovis stone technology will be in order.

“A radical reworking” indeed, especially if Topper’s ancient assemblages are proven, without question, to be as old as many have already claimed. If so, they could represent lithic artifacts left behind by visitors to the North American continent, who may have arrived even earlier than those who carved the ancient bones found at the Bluefish Caves. Only time, as the adage goes, and further research will be able to tell.

Topper excavation image at the top of this article by Dr. Albert Goodyear. For more information on the Topper site, visit Derek T. Anderson’s page here. The author’s blog can be read here.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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