COAST TO COAST

The “new archaeological evidence” to which Cann referred was from Monte Verde, a boggy Chilean riverbank excavated by Tom Dillehay of the University of Kentucky; Mario Pino of the University of Chile in Valdivia; and a team of students and specialists. They began work in 1977, finished excavation in 1985, and published their final reports in two massive volumes in 1989 and 1997. In the twenty years between the first shovelsful of dirt and the final errata sheets, the scientists concluded that paleo-Indians had occupied Monte Verde at least 12,800 years ago. Not only that, they turned up suggestive indications of human habitation more than 32,000 years ago. Monte Verde, in southern Chile, is ten thousand miles from the Bering Strait. Archaeologists have tended to believe that paleo-Indians would have needed millennia to walk from the north end of the Americas to the south. If Monte Verde was a minimum of 12,800 years old, Indians must have come to the Americas thousands of years before that. For the most part, archaeologists had lacked the expertise to address the anti-Clovis evidence from genetics and linguistics. But Monte Verde was archaeology.Dillehay had dug up something like a village, complete with tent-like structures made from animal hides, lashed together by poles and twisted reeds—a culture that he said had existed centuries before Clovis, and that may have been more sophisticated. Skepticism was forceful, even rancorous; arguments lasted for years, with critics charging that Dillehay’s evidence was too low-quality to accept. “People refused to shake my hand at meetings,” Dillehay told me. “It was like I was killing their children.”

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Tom Dillehay

In 1997 a dozen prominent researchers, Haynes among them, flew to Chile to examine the site and its artifacts. The hope was to settle the long-standing dispute by re-creating the graybeards’ visit to Folsom. After inspecting the site itself—a wet, peaty bank strikingly unlike the sere desert home of Folsom and Clovis—the archaeologists ended up at a dimly lighted cantina with the appropriate name of La Caverna. Over a round of beers an argument erupted, prompted, in part, by Haynes’s persistent skepticism. Dillehay told Haynes his experience with stone tools in Arizona was useless in evaluating wooden implements in Peru, and then stomped outside with a supporter. But despite the heated words, a fragile consensus emerged. The experts wrote an article making public their unanimous conclusion. “Monte Verde is real,” Alex W. Barker, now at the Milwaukee Public Museum, told the New York Times. “It’s a whole new ball game.”

Not everyone wanted to play. Two years later Stuart J. Fiedel, a consulting archaeologist in Alexandria, Virginia, charged that Dillehay’s just-published final Monte Verde report was so poorly executed—“bungled” and “loathsome” were among the descriptors he provided when we spoke—that verifying the original location “of virtually every ‘compelling,’ unambiguous artifact” on the site was impossible. Stone tools, which many archaeologists regard as the most important artifacts, have no organic carbon and therefore cannot be carbon-dated. Researchers must reckon their ages by ascertaining the age of the ground they are found in, which in turn requires meticulously documenting their provenance. Because Dillehay’s team had failed to identify properly the location of the stone tools in Monte Verde, Fiedel said, their antiquity was up to question; they could have been in a recent sediment layer. Haynes, who had authenticated Monte Verde in 1997, announced in 1999 that the site needed “further testing.”

The dispute over the Clovis model kept growing. In the 1990s geologists laid out data indicating that the ice sheets were bigger and longer lasting than had been thought, and that even when the ice-free corridor existed it was utterly inhospitable. Worse, archaeologists could find no traces of paleo-Indians (or the big mammals they supposedly hunted) in the corridor from the right time. Meanwhile, paleontologists learned that about two-thirds of the species that vanished did so a little before Clovis appears in the archaeological record. Finally, Clovis people may not have enjoyed hunting that much. Of the seventy-six U.S. paleo-Indian camps surveyed by Meltzer and Donald K. Grayson, an archaeologist at the University of Washington at Seattle, only fourteen showed evidence of big-game hunting, all of it just two species, mastodon and bison. “The overkill hypothesis lives on,” the two men sneered, “not because of [support from] archaeologists and paleontologists who are expert in the area, but because it keeps getting repeated by those who are not.”

Clovis defenders remained as adamant as their critics. Regarding Monte Verde, Haynes told me, “My comment is, where are the photographs of these ‘artifacts’ when they were in place? If you’re trying to prove that site to other archaeologists and you find an unequivocal stone artifact in situ in a site that’s twelve thousand years old, everyone should run over with a camera. It wasn’t until after we brought this up that they dug up some photographs. And they were fuzzy! I really became a doubter then.” Such putative pre-Clovis sites are “background radiation,” he said. “I’m convinced that a hundred years from now there will still be these ‘pre-Clovis’ sites, and this will go on ad infinitum.”

“Some of our colleagues seem to have gone seriously wrong,” lamented Thomas F. Lynch of Texas A&M in the Review of Archaeology in 2001. Proudly claiming that he had helped “blow the whistle” on other Clovis challengers, Lynch described the gathering support for pre-Clovis candidates as a manifestation of “political correctness.” He predicted that Monte Verde would eventually “fade away.”

For better or worse, most archaeologists with whom I have spoken act as if the Clovis-first model were wrong, while still accepting that it might be correct. Truly ardent Clovisites, like Low Counters, are “in a definite minority now,” according to Michael Crawford, a University of Kansas anthropologist—a conclusion that Fiedel, Haynes, and other skeptics ruefully echo. Following Monte Verde, at least three other pre-Clovis sites gained acceptance, though each continued to have its detractors.

The ultimate demise of the Clovis dogma is inevitable, David Henige, author of Numbers from Nowhere, told me. “Archaeologists are always dating something to five thousand years ago and then saying that this must be the first time it occurred because they haven’t found any earlier examples. And then, incredibly, they defend this idea to the death. It’s logically indefensible.” Clovis-first, he said, is “a classic example of arguing from silence. Even in archaeology, which isn’t exactly rocket science”—he chuckled—“there’s only so long you can get away with it.”

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