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Dig Deeper: Paradigm Shifts and the Changing Face of North American Archaeology

The year was 1876, and Charles Conrad Abbott was not only well-known among his colleagues in the anthropological community: he also believed he was poised to initiate a paradigm shift, as far as our ideas about the first people to arrive in North America.

Abbott, a naturalist and career surgeon from New Jersey, was one of the first anthropologists to engage in well-documented archaeological fieldwork anywhere in the Delaware Valley. He had been inspired by the controversial discoveries in France’s Somme Valley, where artifacts found in a gravel pit suggested an earlier arrival of humans in Europe than once thought; at least by several thousands of years. Abbott himself had found stone artifacts that were similar to these, produced from a gravel bed he had worked near Trenton, New Jersey. Although the insinuation here hadn’t necessarily been that there were connections to Europe, he nonetheless believed that the artifacts he had discovered might be evidence of humans in North America before the end of the last ice age.

Abbott, as depicted in Popular Science Monthly, circa 1887 (public domain).

It was not a popular idea at the time, and while the anthropological community didn’t overlook Abbott’s claims entirely, they were readily dismissed. Leading the charge against Abbot were famed geologist William Henry Holmes and John Wesley Powell, the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology. Aleš Hrdlička, who later became curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, eventually joined his colleagues in their criticism, based on three well-thought criteria he proposed at the time.

First, Hrdlička argued, Abbot’s discoveries failed to provide indisputable evidence of human remains, or human-made artifacts (Holmes had suggested that Abbot’s “artifacts” were actually natural formations instead). Hrdlička further argued that no stratigraphic sequence was discernible at the place of Abbot’s discovery, which reliably told their age. Finally, as with the discoveries at the Somme Valley, plant or animal remains must be found alongside any proposed artifacts to help indicate the era from which they hailed; Abbot’s discoveries met none of these criteria.

At the time they were proposed by Hrdlička, they weren’t bad rules for anthropologists to follow. All of these things helped provide important information about the temporal and spatial relationships between any proposed artifacts, the people who made them, and the era in which they were created. So it wasn’t unreasonable for Hrdlička and his colleagues to offer critiques of discoveries by the likes of Abbot. The lacking evidence for claims of “Glacial Man” in the Americas had further fueled the notion at that time that Humans had not existed on the North American continent much longer than 3000 years.

As time has shown, the problem had been that the status quo that these men upheld had been right in principle, based on the criteria they had established, but factually wrong based on information they simply hadn’t managed to find yet. While Abbot’s discoveries may not have been reliable proof for the idea he espoused, better examples that would challenge the existing archaeological paradigms would soon follow.

Enter Folsom, New Mexico, and the discoveries made there by an African American cowboy named George McJunkin in 1908. McJunkin found not only whitewashed bones of megafaunal bison protruding from a bank near Wild Horse Arroyo, but also flint clippings that were consistent with ancient human stone tool manufacture. It wasn’t until 1926 that these discoveries came to the attention Jesse Figgins at the Museum of Natural History, but the ensuing excavations at Folsom clearly established the presence of humans that hunted megafauna in North America at least 9000 years ago, possibly even earlier.

It wasn’t long before similar discoveries made by James Whiteman, a boy of Native American heritage attending college and studying archaeology in New Mexico, found what he called “Warheads” at Black Water Draw near Clovis. Like Folsom had done just a few years beforehand, discoveries at Clovis pushed back the timescales on human occupation of the Americas even further, to as much as 13,000 years.

During the early part of the Twentieth Century, archaeology was still fairly new in North America, and the lack of both resources and manpower often slowed the pace of what otherwise might have been a continuing boom in such archaeological discoveries. More Clovis sites would turn up over the ensuing decades, and on occasion, certain archaeological sites would also produce curiosities: things which didn’t seem to fit the known “paradigm,” and could possibly suggest even earlier heritage for America’s first inhabitants.

Such ideas were no more popular by the 1970s than they had been for men like Charles Abbot a century earlier, and were met with the same customary resistance that past generations of American antiquarians had once seen. Even when reliable radiocarbon dating at sites like Monte Verde, Chile, and Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania began to shatter the widely accepted “Clovis First” paradigm, many in American archaeology were still resistant to the idea of change.

Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Washington County, Pennsylvannia (photo by the author)

With the arrival of the new millennium, the evidence for “Pre-Clovis” was nearly impossible to ignore, and now it is widely accepted that people were indeed here earlier than 13,000 years ago. Recent discoveries at locales like the Gault site in Texas have continued to push the existing timescales back to arrivals in North America by people at least 16,000 years ago, although there are cultural remains that are now turning up in reliably-dated strata as old as 21,000 years.

The aforementioned dates that were determined in relation to artifacts from the Gault site would have seemed impossible only a few years ago. However, the accumulation of evidence is now showing us that people were in the Americas much earlier than previously thought, and seemingly by several thousands of years. Nonetheless, as with many similar “paradigm shifts” that have occurred over the last century or so, today there appear to be limitations to how far modern archaeologists are willing to go with their reconsiderations about the past.

The Topper site in Allendale County, South Carolina is one such site which, despite reliable archaeology that has been done there over the years, has been treated cautiously by the archaeological community. In the video below, my own visit to the Topper site in early 2018 is documented; in it, my colleagues and I were joined by Dr. Albert Goodyear, who led the excavations there over several seasons that produced discoveries that, in our opinion, are truly remarkable in the context of modern archaeology: possible evidence for people in North America between 25,000 and 50,000 years ago.

These discoveries may seem dubious, if not impossible in the context of modern archaeology… perhaps even when giving consideration to the recent discoveries at Gault (at least for the most skeptical among us). Granted, less than a century ago it would also have seemed unlikely that humans were in North America before the end of the last ice age, and only in the last two decades has the broader archaeological community finally warmed up to the reality that there were people here before Clovis. Now, sites like Gault in Texas are showing us that digging deeper often does reveal evidence of much earlier habitation than once believed.

Perhaps it’s time we acknowledge that having a mindset to “dig deeper” would have yielded such results much sooner, had people been doing like Albert Goodyear was already doing as far back as the 1990s. As I noted in 2016 about media coverage of the Topper Site, archaeologist Michael Collins with the University of Texas at Austin told CNN in 2004 that, “[Goodyear] has a very old geologic formation, but I can’t agree with his interpretation of those stones being man-made.” Collins is now a Research Professor at Texas State University in San Marcos and Chairman of the Gault School of Archaeological Research and co-authored the recent paper in Science Advances which detailed the 16,000 to 21,000-year-old discoveries in Texas.

Obviously, there would have to be an eventual boundary beyond which any similar “paradigm shifting” discoveries could be made in American archaeology. However, history has already shown that the tendency to place caps on the earliest arrivals in the Ancient Americas has been premature in every instance. Every attempt to set boundaries for how far back we can push the timetables on early human occupations has been met with new, even earlier discoveries, which challenge our attitudes about who was here, and how long ago they arrived.

Until we can reliably establish when the very earliest arrivals in the New World occurred, it might be best for the anthropological community to adopt a new, and resoundingly simple mantra for future field work: Dig Deeper! 


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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