After long, often bitter debate, archeologists have finally come to a consensus that humans reached southern Chile 12,500 years ago. The date is more than 1,000 years before the previous benchmark for human habitation in the Americas, 11,200-year-old stone spear points first discovered in the 1930s near Clovis, N.M.
The Chilean site, known as Monte Verde, is on the sandy banks of a creek in wooded hills near the Pacific Ocean. Even former skeptics have joined in agreeing that its antiquity is now firmly established and that the bone and stone tools and other materials found there definitely mark the presence of a hunting-and-gathering people.
The new consensus regarding Monte Verde, described in interviews last week and formally announced Monday, thus represents the first major shift in more than 60 years in the confirmed chronology of human prehistory in what would much later be called, from the European perspective, the New World.
For American archeologists it is a liberating experience not unlike aviation’s breaking of the sound barrier; they have broken the Clovis barrier. Even moving back the date by as little as 1,300 years, archeologists said, would have profound implications on theories about when people first reached America, presumably from northeastern Asia by way of the Bering Strait, and how they migrated south more than 10,000 miles to occupy the length and breadth of two continents. It could mean that early people, ancestors of the Indians, first arrived in their new world at least 20,000 years before Columbus.
Evidence for the pre-Clovis settlement at Monte Verde was amassed and carefully analyzed over the last two decades by a team of American and Chilean archeologists, led by Dr. Tom D. Dillehay of the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Remaining doubts were erased by Dillehay’s comprehensive research report, which has been circulated among experts and is to be published next month by the Smithsonian Institution. And last month, a group of archeologists, including some of Monte Verde’s staunchest critics, inspected the artifacts and visited the site, coming away thoroughly convinced.
In his report of the site visit, Dr. Alex W. Barker, chief curator of the Dallas Museum of Natural History, said: “While there were very strongly voiced disagreements about different points, it rapidly became clear that everyone was in fundamental agreement about the most important question of all. Monte Verde is real. It’s old. And it’s a whole new ball game.”
The archeologists made the site inspection under the auspices of the Dallas museum, where their conclusions were reported Monday, and with additional support by the National Geographic Society. The archeologists, all specialists in the early settlement of America, included Dr. C. Vance Haynes of the University of Arizona, Dr. James Adovasio of Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., Dr. David J. Meltzer of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Dr. Dena Dincauze of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Dr. Donald K. Grayson of the University of Washington in Seattle and Dr. Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
Dincauze, who had expressed serious doubts about the site’s antiquity, said that Dillehay’s report made “a convincing case” that the remains of huts, fireplaces and tools showed human occupation by a pre-Clovis culture.
“I’m convinced it’s 100 percent solid,” Dr. Brian M. Fagan, an anthropologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said of the new assessment of Monte Verde. “It’s an extraordinary piece of research.”
Finally vindicated, Dillehay said, “Most archeologists had always thought there was a pre-Clovis culture out there somewhere, and I knew that if they would only come to the site and look at the setting and see the artifacts, they would agree that Monte Verde was pre-Clovis.”
Monte Verde, on the banks of Chinchihaupi Creek, is in the hills near the town of Puerto Montt, 500 miles south of Santiago. Dillehay and Dr. Mario Pino of the Southern University of Chile in Valdivia began excavations there in 1976. They found the remains of the ancient camp, even wood and other perishables that archeologists rarely find, remarkably well preserved by the water-saturated peat bog that covered the site, isolating the material from oxygen and thus decay.
As Dillehay reconstructed the prehistoric scene in his mind, a group of 20 to 30 people occupied Monte Verde for a year or so. They lived in shelters covered in animal hides. They gathered berries in the spring, chestnuts in the fall and also ate potatoes, mushrooms and marsh grasses. They hunted small game and also ancestors of the llama and sometimes went down to the Pacific, 30 miles away, for shellfish. They were hunters and gatherers living far from the presumed home of their remote ancestors, in northeastern Asia.
The evidence to support this picture is extensive. Excavations turned up wooden planks from some of the 12 huts that once stood in the camp, and logs with attached pieces of hide that probably insulated these shelters. Pieces of wooden poles and stakes were still tied with cords made of local grasses, a telling sign that ingenious humans had been there. “That’s something nature doesn’t do,” Barker said. “Tie overhand knots.”
Stone projectile points found there were carefully chipped on both sides, archeologists said. The people of Monte Verde also made digging sticks, grinding slabs and tools of bone and tusk. Some seeds and nuts were shifted out of the soil. A chunk of meat had managed to survive in the bog, remains of the hunters’ last kill; DNA analysis indicates the meat was from a mastodon. The site also yielded several human coprolites, ancient fecal material.
Nothing at Monte Verde was more evocative of its former inhabitants than a single footprint beside a hearth. A child had stood there by the fire 12,500 years ago and left a lasting impression in the soft clay.
Radiocarbon dating of bone and charcoal from the fireplaces established the time of the encampment. The date of 12,500 years ago, said Meltzer, author of “Search for the First Americans,” published in 1993 by the Smithsonian Institution, “could fundamentally change the way we understand the peopling of the Americas.”
The research, in particular, shows people living as far south as Chile before it is clear that there existed an ice-free corridor through the vast North American glaciers by which people might have migrated south. In the depths of the most recent ice age, two vast ice sheets converged about 20,000 years ago over what is now Canada and the northern United States and apparently closed off human traffic there until sometime after 13,000 years ago. Either people migrated through a corridor between the ice sheets and spread remarkably fast to the southern end of America or they came by a different route, perhaps along the western coast, by foot and sometimes on small vessels. Otherwise they must have entered the Americas before 20,000 years ago.
Dr. Carol Mandryk, a Harvard University archeologist who has studied the American paleoenvironment, said the concept of an ice-free corridor as the migration route emerged in the 1930s, but her research shows that even after the ice sheets began to open a path, there was not enough vegetation there to support the large animals migrating people would have had to depend on for food.
“It’s very clear people couldn’t have used this corridor until after 13,000 years ago,” Mandryk said. “They came down the coast. I don’t understand why people see the coast as an odd way. The early people didn’t have to be interior big-game hunters, they could have been maritime adapted people.” No archeologists seriously considers the possibility that the first Americans came by sea and landed first in South America, a hypothesis made popular in the 1960s by the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl. There is no evidence of people’s occupying Polynesia that long ago. All linguistic, genetic and geological evidence points to the Bering Strait as the point of entry, especially in the ice age, when lower sea levels created a wide land bridge there between Siberia and Alaska.
Although several other potential pre-Clovis sites have been reported, none has yet to satisfy all archeologists in the way Monte Verde has just done. But archeologists expected the verification of Monte Verde would hasten the search for even older places of early human occupation in the Americas.