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Humans Settled in America Earlier than Thought

Human history is being rewritten as archaeologists uncover the remnants of lost civilizations. A new study shows that humans crossed into the Americas 1,500 years earlier than first thought.

Scuba diving archaeologists (using specialized underwater rigs) exploring the Page-Ladson sinkhole in the Aucilla Rover near Tallahassee, Florida have uncovered evidence of humans living in America prior to the settlement of the Clovis civilization, long thought to have been the first settlers. The sinkhole, one of only a handful of pre-Clovis sites ever discovered, reveals the oldest evidence of human settlement found in the southeastern United States.

Underwater archaeology, finding ancient artifacts.

Underwater archaeology, finding ancient artifacts.

The new study places the humans as arriving around 12,500 B.C. The findings give insight into the hunter-gatherer civilization whose ancestors came to the Americas by boat, not across the Bering Land Bridge connecting Asia and the Americas as the Clovis people had used to arrive.

Interesting is the fact that the site had been excavated earlier, between 1987 and 1997. The findings, eight stone tools alongside a mastodon tusk by archaeologists James Dunbar and David Webb were dismissed at the time.

However, between 2012 and 2014, Michael Waters, a professor and archaeologist at Texas A&M University and colleagues re-examined the site. They excavated more tools, including a double-faced knife used for cutting and the bones of extinct animals. The results of these finding were recently published in the journal Science Advances.

The team conducted underwater excavation, in the black water (low visibility) river over the course of two years. In addition to the mastodon tusk, biface knife, other stone tools and extinct animal bones, they found the jawbone of a dog.

Mastodon tusk found at the excavation site.

Mastodon tusk found at the excavation site.

Waters says,

The new discoveries at Page-Ladson show that people were living in the Gulf Coast area much earlier than believed. The stone tools and faunal remains at the site show that at 14,550 years ago, people knew how to find game, fresh water and material for making tools. These people were well-adapted to this environment. The site is a slam-dunk pre-Clovis site with unequivocal artifacts, clear stratigraphy and thorough dating.

Tools and artifacts found at the underwater excavation site.

Tools and artifacts found at the underwater excavation site.

A theory is that the hunter-gatherers tracked a herd of mastodon to a watering hole (now part of the sinkhole), using dogs to hunt the massive creatures. Bore cut marks on the excavated mastodon tusk show deep parallel grooves used by humans using stone to remove the tusk from the skull. A tusk that size would have held 15 pounds of nutritious tissue in the pulp cavity. This also proves that mastodon were not hunted to extinction during this time period as previously thought, but became extinct over 2,000 years later. It also shows that humans and megafauna coexisted for at lest 2,000 years.

Mastodon tusk, showing cutting grooves.

Mastodon tusk, showing cutting grooves.

Dr. Daniel Fisher, archaeologist at the University of Michigan and member of the research team says,

These grooves are clearly the result of human activity and, together with new radiocarbon dates, they indicate that humans were processing a mastodon carcass in what is now the southeastern United States much earlier than was generally accepted. In addition, our work provides strong evidence that early human hunters did not hunt mastodons to extinction as quickly as supporters of the so-called “Blitzkrieg” hypothesis have argued.

Dr. Jessi Halligan, an anthropologist at Florida State University and part of the team sums up,

This is a big deal. There were people here. So how did they live? This has opened up a whole new line of inquiry for us as scientists as we try to understand the settlement of the Americas. It’s pretty exciting. We thought we knew the answers to how and when we got here, but now the story is changing.