Beginning in the 1926, a handful of ancient burial sites began to be excavated in parts of New Mexico, suggesting that a very interesting clue to the past lay hidden beneath the unturned earth. The site, located near the Blackwater Draw in eastern New Mexico, was among the earliest of its kind, but over the course of the next decade, similar discoveries at nearby Clovis, New Mexico, would begin detailing the settlement of a distinctive culture that appeared between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago.
The remains of this prehistoric Paleo-indian group became known as known as that of the Clovis culture, and in February 2014, a 12,600-year-old sample taken from the remains of an infant found in Montana — the “Anzick boy” — provided DNA evidence that the Clovis people were ancestors to roughly 80% of all modern Native American populations.
For decades, the knowledge of the Clovis culture and, more specifically, where in the geological strata their remains would be found, would set a new precedent for how dig sites were excavated. Based on this, the Clovis culture remains what many archaeologists today believe to be the earliest cultural group to arrive in the Americas.
However, there is some controversial evidence that may suggest an even earlier arrival in America by ancient people.
Albert Goodyear, a researcher with the University of South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, is the founder of the Allendale PaleoIndian Expedition in South Carolina. In 2004, Goodyear managed to stir controversy in the archaeological world when he made the bold suggestion that, rather than settling the Americas 13,000 years ago, some evidence may suggest that our ancestors may have arrived here much earlier, possibly even during one of the earlier known ice ages.
Goodyear’s information comes from a controversial dig site in South Carolina known as the Topper site. According to radiocarbon carried out at this location, Goodyear believes it is not only the first human settlement in North America, but that it may date as far back as 50,000 years, predating other known human settlements in North America by as much has 25,000.
In addition to radiocarbon dating at the Topper site, Goodyear and his team managed to find pieces of stone shards which appeared to bear the signatures of rudimentary human manipulation as tools. However, some feel that these purported artifacts are too indistinct to reliably offer proof of human tools at the location.
"He has a very old geologic formation, but I can't agree with his interpretation of those stones being man-made," Michael Collins with the University of Texas at Austin told CNN in 2004. Collins is now a Research Professor at Texas State University in San Marcos, and Chairman of the Gault School of Archaeological Research.
The Topper site is not the only paleolithic site that has been presented as evidence of pre-Clovis cultures. In Collins' home state of Texas, a similar site was uncovered at Buttermilk Creek in Salado, Texas, which archaeologists believe may date as far back as 15,000 years. Further North in Virginia, another controversial site known as the Cactus Hill site was uncovered less than 50 miles from Richmond, which some archaeologists believe to be as old as 18,000 to 20,000 years.
Sites that allegedly predate the Clovis culture have been found in South America, as well. The Monte Verde site near Puerto Montt, Chile, is believe to be nearly as old as Virginia's Cactus Hill location, though radiocarbon dating at the site has suggested evidence of settlement as far back as 33,000 years. To the northeast, the Pedra Furada sites in Piauí, Brazil, also point to settlements predating the Clovis culture.
If sites such as these, scattered across the Americas, are ever proven conclusively to date back as much as tens of thousands of years prior to the arrival of the Clovis culture, it raises an entire range of new questions, such as whether these individuals crossed land bridges during earlier periods of glaciation, or if, as suggested in more controversial theories, they traveled from even further locations (as proposed in the Solutrean hypothesis, which suggests Europeans were among the first to settle the Americas, a theory with notable proponents that include Dennis Stanford, director of the Paleoindian/Paleoecology Program at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution). While the questions remain, few would argue that, at the heart of the mystery, new perspectives await us that may help reshape our understanding of the ancient world, who inhabited it, and where these ancient settlers of the Americas hailed from originally.