Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Original Americans May Be Older than Thought

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD, NY TIMES - On a hillside by the Savannah River, under tall oaks bearded with Spanish moss, an archaeologist and a graduate student crouched in the humid depths of a trench. They had reason to think they were in the presence of a breathtaking discovery. Or at the least, they were on to something more than 20,000 years old that would throw American archaeology into further turmoil over its most contentious issue: when did people first reach America, and who were they?

The sandy soil of the trench walls was flecked with pieces of chert, the source of flint coveted by ancient toolmakers. Some of the stone flakes appeared to be unfinished discards. Others had the sharp-edged look of more fully realized blades, chisels and scrapers. Long ago, it seemed, Stone Age hunter-gatherers had frequently stopped here and, perhaps, these toolmakers were among the first Americans.

With deft strokes of his trowel, the archaeologist, Dr. Albert C. Goodyear of the University of South Carolina, excised a chunk of chert about the size of a cantaloupe. Its sides, he said, had all the marks of flintknappers' work. They had presumably smashed one cobble against another, leaving fracture lines through the rock, and then recovered thin slices for making sharp tools. "This is not a natural occurrence," Dr. Goodyear said, showing the beaten-about chert cobble afterward. "No river, fire or animals could do this. Too many blows have been struck."

If he is right, American prehistory is being extended deeper in time at this remote dig site near Barnwell. Dr. Robson Bonnichsen, an expert on early Americans who is not directly involved in the excavation, said it could even be "the single most significant Ice Age site in North America" as a place bearing tantalizing evidence for "understanding the earliest prehistory of the Americas." . . .

Judging by the depth of sediments, the site may have been a toolmaking center at least 7,000 years earlier than the arrival of big-game hunters known as the Clovis people. Once thought to be the earliest Americans, Clovis hunters, named for the town in New Mexico where their traces were uncovered 70 years ago, left their finely worked fluted projectile points across the United States over five centuries, beginning 13,000 years ago. All the dates here are based on radiocarbon calculations adjusted to calendar years.

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