June 14, 2010
By Stephen Fried
Who really discovered America? If you think the earliest Americans were Christopher Columbus and his crew, or even the Native Americans they met here, you’d be off by thousands of years. The debate over just how many years—and how people lived after arriving here—is one of the most important in ancient U.S. history.
The hunt for “the American Adam,” says David Meltzer, a professor of prehistory at Southern Methodist University, is a “search for insight into how our species adapted to a truly new world.”
For much of the last century, scientists thought the earliest Americans got here 13,000 years ago, based upon spear points and bone tools found near Clovis, N.M. It was hypothesized that they came from Asia, walking across a land corridor that existed between Siberia and Alaska. After Clovis, other archaeologists thought they’d uncovered evidence of a still-earlier culture, but, ultimately, their claims always fell apart.
Then, in 2002, scrappy ex-biker turned archaeologist Dennis Jenkins of the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History began digging in his state’s Paisley Caves. He and his team uncovered a few bones of extinct species of horse and camel and also fossilized excrement, or “coprolites” in scientific-speak.
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