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David J. Meltzer

Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory

Ph.D. 1984 University of Washington
Heroy Hall 442

Member, National Academy of Sciences 
Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science

•Peopling of New World/Paleoindian 
•Pleistocene climate & environments 
•History of North American Archaeology 
•Great Plains & Rocky Mountains prehistory 
•Human responses to climate change 

Courses Taught

ANTH 2302 - People of the Earth: Humanity's First Five Million Years
ANTH 3304 - North American Archaeology
CF 3360 - The North American Great Plains: Land, Water, Life
ANTH 3399 - Ice Age Americans (co-listed with CFA 3399)
ANTH 5334 - History of Anthropology, Part One
ANTH 6301 - Principles of Archaeology
ANTH 6332 - Seminar in Paleoenvironments
ANTH 7313 - Archaeological Theory
ANTH 7317 - Archaeological Research Strategies
ANTH 7318 - Late Pleistocene Prehistory of North America


Who I am... 

I began in archaeology as a 15-year old high school student excavating at the Thunderbird Paleoindian site near Front Royal (VA), and have been at it ever since. My undergraduate education was in Anthropology (with a minor in soils) at the University of Maryland (B.A. 1977). I then crossed the country for graduate school at the University of Washington in Seattle, doing coursework in archaeology and Quaternary sciences (the latter through the Quaternary Research Center), ultimately earning degrees in Anthropology/Archaeology (M.A. 1979 and Ph.D. 1984). Newly-minted Ph.D. in hand, I came to SMU as Assistant Professor in Anthropology in 1984, and haven't left. I am now the Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory.

I have published the results of my research in over 150 publications, mostly of the scholarly sort, but a number of them were written for general audiences and have appeared in popular science journals. I have also written or edited half a dozen books, including Folsom (2006), and Search for the First Americans (1993). The latter was published by the Smithsonian Institution Press, which has since folded, and the book is now out of print. However, in 2009 I published an updated and thoroughly revised edition that, because it is twice as long, far wider-ranging, and more detailed than Search for the First Americans, appears under a new title: First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America (2009, University of California Press).

At SMU, I teach a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses, including a couple of interdisciplinary courses, In Search of Ice Age Americans, and North American Great Plains.

I am a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

I serve on the editorial boards of the American Anthropologist and Quaternary Research.

...and what I do 

My research interests center on the origins, antiquity, and adaptations of the first Americans (Paleoindians), who colonized the North American continent at the end of the Pleistocene (Ice Age). I seek to understand how these hunter-gatherers met the challenges of moving across and adapting to the vast, initially unknown, ecologically diverse, landscape of Late Glacial North America, during a time of significant climate change.

My research has evolved in several directions, including an interest in understanding late Pleistocene and Holocene climates and environments, the role of landscape learning and demographics in colonizing new worlds, and how such processes might play out over centuries and be visible archaeologically, as I discuss at length in First Peoples in a New World and many papers (see, for example, Meltzer 2004 Peopling of North America.)

That interest has also played out in investigations of the possible role of Clovis groups in Pleistocene faunal extinctions, the subject of several papers with Don Grayson (see Grayson and Meltzer 2002, Grayson and Meltzer 2003, and Grayson and Meltzer 2004). We don't think human hunters had much, if anything, to do with this extinctions process. Mike Cannon and I followed up on that work with an analysis of what animals appear to have been part of the Clovis diet (see Cannon and Meltzer 2004 and Cannon and Meltzer 2008.)
My various research interests have been pursued through archaeological field work in many areas of the United States, from arctic Alaska to west Texas. Since 1985, my field research has focused on Late Pleistocene to Middle Holocene hunter-gatherer archaeology and paleoecology on the High Plains and Rocky Mountains of western North America. I have investigated and published on a number of sites, including Mustang Springs (TX), an important Middle Holocene (Altithermal-age) site, as well as the Midland (TX) and Folsom (NM) Paleoindian type sites.

A hefty volume on the three seasons of field work conducted at the Folsom site, FOLSOM: new archaeological investigations of a classic Paleoindian bison kill, was published in the spring of 2006 by the University of California Press. The volume includes not just the results of our excavations at the site, but also a detailed analysis of the faunal and archaeological materials recovered at this historically-important locality in 1926-1928. Earlier reports on our work at the site appeared in American Antiquity (Meltzer, Todd and Holliday 2002) and in Quaternary Research (Balakrishnan et al. 2005). As a follow up to that research, Dan Mann and I worked on the Quaternary depositional and erosional history of the drainages in the Folsom area (Upper Dry Cimarron River), and in the Geological Society of American Bulletin we attempt to link episodes of aggradation and incision to Late Pleistocene and Holocene cycles of climate changes (Mann and Meltzer 2007). 

Most of my archaeological and paleoenvironmental field work since 2000 has been on other Folsom-age sites, such as Bonfire Rockshelter (see Byerly et al 2005 and Byerly et al. 2007 and Hot Tubb (both in Texas). Since 2002, we have worked primarily in the high-elevation Gunnison Basin of western Colorado, at the Folsom-age site Mountaineer (working with Mark Stiger of Western State College), Lanning, and Flat Top sites. The concentration of Folsom-age sites in that region during Younger Dryas times has prompted work with colleagues and collaborators in geology, paleoecology and vertebrate paleontology, aimed at understanding the climate and environment in the Gunnison Basin at this time (as reported in Briles, Whitlock and Meltzer 2012).

Work on climate change and human responses is of longstanding interest, beginning with research on the Altithermal to the more recent focus on the Younger Dryas period, the subject of a paper published with Vance Holliday in the Journal of World Prehistory (Meltzer and Holliday 2010

We followed that up later in 2010 with a paper expressing our deep skepticism that the Younger Dryas was triggered by a comet hitting the earth, which in turn is alleged to have caused the 'termination' of the Clovis culture. As we argue in 'The 12.9 ka ET impact hypothesis and North American Paleoindians' the supposed Clovis comet-impact, testing, is an unnecessary solution to an archaeological problem that does not exist. The Clovis culture ultimately disappeared, but this was a case of cultural evolution, not comet-caused extinction. Moreover, we have recently shown in Chronological evidence fails to support claim of an isochronous widespread layer of cosmic impact indicators dated to 12,800 years ago that a key element underpinning this claim, notably that 29 sites across four continents yield impact indicators dating to the Younger Dryas onset, can be rejected. At all but three of the sites the supposed impact markers are undated or significantly older or younger than 12,800 years ago. Given this, and the fact that evidence of a global impact has not been supported by independent testing, the claim of a Younger Dryas impact cannot be supported.

My interest in climates is not entirely archaeological, for my research on human responses to past climate changes makes it clear that present day climate changes are putting our species into uncharted territory, with far fewer adaptive options than we enjoyed in the past. And there is no denying climate change is taking place, as we (a group of 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences) stated in a letter to Science on 'Climate change and the integrity of science'. 

My voice has also been part of the din over the origins and antiquity of the first Americans, which has involved visits to a number of the localities thought to be among the oldest in the hemisphere, such as Monte Verde (Chile), Meltzer Adovasio Dillehay and joining - with colleagues Lawrence Strauss and Ted Goebel - in evaluating the fantastic claim that the Americas was colonized from Europe across the North Atlantic in Ice Age times by Solutrean boat people. Color us extremely skeptical, as attested in our paper, Ice Age Atlantis and more recently in Refuting the technological cornerstone of the Ice-Age Atlantic crossing hypothesis and in More on the rumor of 'Intentional overshot flaking' and the purported Ice-Age Atlantic crossing

Controversy over the origins and antiquity of the first Americans is nothing new, and I also have a historical interest in the late 19th and early 20th century debate over human antiquity in the New World. This dispute cut to the conceptual core of American archaeology, and its study provides a venue for understanding the nature of scientific controversy and its resolution (as discussed in my 'Seventy Year Itch'. Besides, it is easier to study the controversy over the first Americans from the comfort and perspective of a century away, than the recent one we've all been involved in, and for which the dust and the rhetoric hasn't yet settled. The effort to understand that controversy began in earnest in 1981 when I was a Predoctoral Research Fellow in the Smithsonian Institution's Department of Anthropology, and continues to the present. It has involved historical and archival research throughout the United States, produced a number of articles and most recently the book, The Great Paleolithic War: how science forged an understanding of America's Ice Age past, which will be published by the University of Chicago Press in the fall of 2015. Along the way, I took a brief detour further back in time to produce an introductory essay for the Smithsonian Institution's 150th anniversary re-issue of Ancient monuments of the Mississippi Valley by Ephraim Squier & Edwin Davis, the very first publication of that Institution in 1848.

My archaeological and historical research has been supported by grants from the National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, The Potts and Sibley Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution. In 1996, I received an extraordinarily generous research endowment from Joseph and Ruth Cramer to establish the Quest Archaeological Research Program, which will support in perpetuity at SMU research on the earliest occupations of North America.

Recent Publications

2015 Grayson, D.K. and D. J. Meltzer, Revisiting Paleoindian exploitation of extinct North American mammals. Journal of Archaeological Science 56:177-193. [pdf]

2015 Reynard, L., D.J. Meltzer, S.D. Emslie and N. Tuross, Stable isotopes in yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris) fossils reveal environmental stability in the Late Quaternary of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Quaternary Research 83:345-354. [pdf]

2014 Eren, M.I., R.J. Patten, M.J. O'Brien and D.J. Meltzer, More on the rumor of 'Intentional overshot flaking' and the purported Ice-Age Atlantic crossing. Lithic Technology 39:5-63. [pdf]

2014 Holliday, V.T., T. Surovell, D.J. Meltzer, D.K. Grayson and M. Boslough, The Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis: a cosmic catastrophe. Journal of Quaternary Science 29:515-530. [pdf]

2014 Meltzer, D.J., Clovis at the end of the world. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(34): 12276-12277. [pdf]

2014 Meltzer, D.J., V.T. Holliday, M.D. Cannon and D.S. Miller, Chronological evidence fails to support claim of an isochronous widespread layer of cosmic impact indicators dated to 12,800 years ago. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences E2162-E2171 (doi:10.1073/pnas.1401150111). [pdf]

2014 Rasmussen, M., S. Anzick, M. Waters, P. Skoglund, M. DeGiorgio, T.W. Stafford, S. Rasmussen, I. Moltke, A. Albrechtsen, S. Doyle, G.D. Poznik, V. Gudmundsdottir, R. Yadav, A. Malaspinas, S. White, M.E. Allentoft, O.E. Cornejo, K. Tambets, A. Eriksson, P.D. Heintzman, M. Karmin, T. Korneliussen, D.J. Meltzer, T.L. Pierre, J. Stenderup, L. Saag, V. Warmuth, M. Cabrita Lopes, S. Brunak, T. Sicheritz-Ponten, I. Barnes, M. Collins, L. Orlando, F. Balloux, A. Manica, M. Metspalu, C.D. Bustamante, M. Jakobsson, R. Gupta, R. Nielsen and E. Willerslev, The genome of a Late Pleistocene human from a Clovis burial site in western Montana. Nature 506:225-229. [pdf]

2013 Eren, M.I., R.J. Patten, M.J. O’Brien and D.J. Meltzer, Refuting the technological cornerstone of the Ice-Age Atlantic crossing hypothesis. Journal of Archaeological Science 40:2934-2941. [pdf

2013 Meltzer, D.J., The human colonization of the Americas, archaeology. Encyclopedia of Global Human Migrations, Volume 1:Prehistory. P. Bellwood, ed., pp. 61-69. Wiley Publishing. [pdf

2012 Boslough, M., K. Nicoll, V. Holliday, T. Daulton, D. Meltzer, N. Pinter, A. Scott, T. Surovell, P. Claeys, J. Gill, F. Paquay, J. Marlon, P. Bartlein, C. Whitlock, D. Grayson and T. Jull, Arguments and evidence against a Younger Dryas impact event. In Climates, Landscapes and Civilizations, P. Clift, ed., pp. 13-26. Geophysical Monograph Series 198, American Geophysical Union. [pdf

2012 Briles, C., C. Whitlock, and D.J. Meltzer. Last glacial-interglacial environments in the southern Rocky Mountains, USA and implications for Younger Dryas-age human occupation. Quaternary Research 77: 96-103. [pdf

2012 Meltzer, D.J. and O. Bar-Yosef, Looking for the Younger Dryas. In Hunter-gatherer behavior: human response during the Younger Dryas, M.I. Eren, editor, pp. 249-267. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California. [pdf

2011 Eren, M., D.J. Meltzer & R. Colwell. The Platte Canyon Bypass: a multi-component locality in central Colorado. Southwestern Lore 77: 22-24.

2011 Holliday, V.T., D.J. Meltzer, and R. Mandel, Stratigraphy of the Younger Dryas Chronozone and paleoenvironmental implications: Central and Southern Great Plains. Quaternary International 242: 520-533. [pdf]

2011 Meltzer, D.J., La chasse au bison à Folsom: nouveau regard sur un site de référence. In Peuplements et préhistoire en Amériques, D. Vialou, ed., pp. 85-96. Éditions du Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques (CTHS), Paris.

2011 Sellet, F., D.J. Meltzer, A.V. Vialou & D. Vialou, An American (projective point) in Paris. Current Research in the Pleistocene 28: 152-154. 

2011 Strauss, L.G., L.A. Borrero, R. Hunter-Anderson, W.A. Longacre, D.J. Meltzer, D. Read, J.A. Sabloff & F. Wendorf, Lew Binford deserves more than the usual obituary. Journal of Anthropological Research 67: 321-331.

2010 Holliday, V.T. and D.J. Meltzer, The 12.9ka ET impact hypothesis and North American Paleoindians. Current Anthropology 51: 575-607. (Named Archaeology Magazine's 2010 'Undiscovery of the Year') [pdf

2010 Meltzer, D.J., When destiny takes a turn for the worse: William Henry Holmes and, incidentally, Franz Boas in Chicago, 1892-1897. Histories of Anthropology Annual 6: 171-224. [pdf]. 

2010 Meltzer, D.J. and V.T. Holliday, Would North American Paleoindians have noticed Younger Dryas age climate changes? Journal of World Prehistory 23: 1-41. [pdf

2009 Meltzer, D.J.,First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America (2009, University of California Press). (Paperback edition, 2010)

2009 Cooper, J.R. and D.J. Meltzer, Investigations at 5GN149, a lithic workshop in the Upper Gunnison Basin, Colorado. Colorado Archaeology 2: 3-29. [pdf

2009 Meltzer, D.J. and B.B. Huckell, Flake tools from the Folsom type site: removing a case of mistaken identity. Current Research in the Pleistocene 26: 99-100. [pdf

2008 Cannon, M.D. and D.J. Meltzer, Explaining variability in early Paleoindian foraging. Quaternary International 191: 5-17. [pdf

For a complete listing of Dr. Meltzer's publications, please click here