Were the Clovis the first Americans?

An engraving depicting an encounter between Christopher Columbus and natives of Cuba. See more pictures of Christopher Columbus.
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History textbooks often claim Christopher Columbus discovered America. While Columbus was among the first Europeans (the Norse before him, and possibly the Chinese and an Irish monk) to explore the New World, he found that the Americas were already inhabited. Columbus hardly made it to the American continents first.

There's little room to argue that Europeans exploited this New World. But had it not been for the fashionable European pursuit of archaeology, some questions that came up may never have been answered: Who arrived at the Americas first, and for how long had they lived there? While there's no tangible value in finding out who got to the Americas first (certainly none of these people survived these thousands of years to accept the honor), then perhaps it's the pursuit of knowledge (and our affinity for ascribing firsts) that has driven scientists to uncover the answer.

The most curious aspect of American settlement is the matter of how the first inhabitants got to the Am­ericas. Essentially, the continents are an island. The massive North and South American land masses aren't connected to any other part of the world, and they'd been isolated by the seas for quite some time. So where did these early inhabitants come from?

­Early archaeologists could tell pretty easily that some ancient civilizations lived at certain sites -- these places were full of old relics. But it wasn't until the 1950s that radiocarbon dating was refined enough to reliably date these artifacts. (Radiocarbon dating evaluates the age of C-14 carbon isotopes found in the sediment surrounding artifacts at archaeological sites.)

One site in particular already had fascinated researchers for years. In 1932, artifacts and the bones of long-extinct species were discovered near Clovis, N.M. They appeared to be very old, but they also revealed an advanced technology. Projectile tips were fluted and beveled in sophisticated designs. Archaeologists deduced from the bones at these sites that these people hunted large animals, which would've required a great deal of planning, organization and cooperation. The culture that left behind these artifacts was named Clovis, after the nearby town.

Radiocarbon dating revealed that the Clovis had lived in North America as early as 11,200 years ago. The date set off a flurry of theories about how they'd come to the plains of the North American continent. Read about where the Clovis people came from on the next page.

The Clovis-First Theory

The fossilized remains of a mammoth in Mongolia. From the size of the animal, it's apparent that it took coordination and several people to slaughter a mammoth.
The fossilized remains of a mammoth in Mongolia. From the size of the animal, it's apparent that it took coordination and several people to slaughter a mammoth.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

On the timeline of history, the Clovis people appeared out of nowhere and disappeared in the blink of an eye. Clovis sites were found throughout the southern and eastern United States. Radiocarbon dating revealed that the Clovis had a pretty short existence: They first appeared in America around 9,200 B.C. and vanished 500 years later, around 8,700 B.C.

So where did the Clovis come from -- and where did they go?

Intense investigation into clues the Clovis left behind was launched as more artifacts were discovered. The Clovis-First theory proposes that these people came from Siberia, where hunter-gatherer tribes lived. Around the time the Clovis lived in the Americas, the world was in the middle of an Ice Age. The Ice Age lowered sea levels because so much water was frozen solid; as a result, land that's now under water was exposed. The Bering land bridge, which connects Alaska to Siberia and is now under the Bering Strait, is supposedly the passage the Clovis crossed from Siberia to Alaska. In the time of the Clovis migration, the land bridge would have been about a mile wide.

Much of Alaska and Canada were covered by a vast ice sheet, but geological evidence shows there was a recession in the ice (called the ice-free corridor) that would have allowed the Clovis to migrate through to the northern parts of the United States. From there, they traveled south and spread across the continent.

But why would the Clovis leave home for a strange, new world? The answer to this question ties into the answer about the Clovis' disappearance.

The Clovis, like other prehistoric cultures, were hunter-gatherers. They foraged for plants and hunted animals for food. There's evidence at Clovis sites that they slaughtered enormous game like mastodon and mammoths with their unique projectile points. These big game species had far-flung migratory patterns. The Clovis would've been dependent on these animals, and where the mastodon and mammoths migrated, the Clovis followed. So it's possible that the Clovis' food sources led them into North America.

The prevailing theory among Clovis-First adherents is that the Clovis' dependency on mammoths and mastodons led to their downfall. Theorists believe that the Clovis people either overestimated the abundance of their food sources or weren't diversified enough in their diets. The Clovis may have overhunted mastodons and mammoths, leading to both species' extinction in North America and the eventual extinction of the Clovis.

This Clovis-First theory is supported by archaeological evidence. For decades, archaeologists and anthropologists who subscribed to the Clovis-First theory so ardently believed that this early culture was the first to settle the Americas that they jealously guarded their ideas and evidence. A "Clovis barrier" [source: Rose] shielded by the scientists who formed a sort of "Clovis police" [source: UNL] discounted any other theory that placed other cultures in the Americas earlier than the Clovis.

But evidence from around the world pokes holes in the Clovis-First theory. At least one site suggests there's another explanation for the presence of the first humans in the Americas. In 1998, a final study of a site excavated near Monte Verde, Chile, broke through the Clovis barrier. Find out about the Monte Verde site and how it changed the outlook of American prehistory on the next page.

Monte Verde: Usurping the Clovis?

Examples of projectile points that predate Clovis culture from a site in South Carolina
Examples of projectile points that predate Clovis culture from a site in South Carolina
Kenneth Garrett/National Geographic/Getty Images

Although the Clovis-First theory provides a succinct and tidy explanation of human settlement in the Americas, it leaves questions unanswered. For example, why haven't Clovis artifacts been discovered along the passage they would have taken from Siberia to North America? Some evidence has been found in the northern United States and Canada. However, the time frame for these artifacts isn't definitive [source: University of Calgary].

And the Canadian evidence doesn't explain other evidence found in the Americas. The radiocarbon dating of archaeological sites suggests that the Clovis actually migrated south to north rather than north to south [source: Smith]. This implies that the Clovis would have come from South America, not from Siberia.

Clovis-First adherents discounted the idea of south-to-north migration until 1998, when the final report on a site in Monte Verde, Chile, was established as the oldest evidence of human habitation in the Americas. Monte Verde is located in the southwestern part of South America, not far from Antarctica. At the site, hearths and wood with knotted strings attached were found. The artifacts were dated about 12,500 years old, some 1,300 years before the Clovis showed up in the archaeological record of North America [source: New York Times].

Where did the Monte Verde people come from? Antarctica and South America haven't been connected for about 80 million years [source: Dutch]. How would anyone have traveled to the Americas? It's not entirely out of the question that boats conveyed early prehistoric American settlers.

Aboriginal Australians are believed to have lived on their island continent for as long as 60,000 years. And Australia broke free from Antarctica around 50 million years ago [source: Dutch]. The earliest Australians are believed to have migrated to the continent by boat, island-hopping in Polynesia along the way. It's possible a similar scenario explains the settlement of South America. This, however, is a speculative theory and isn't supported by any evidence found by archaeologists.

The Monte Verde site represented a polar shift in the way archaeologists look at human settlement in the Americas. Were these people the ancestors of the Clovis people? Did humans migrate northward, from South America up to the North American plains? Unfortunately, the Clovis didn't appear to leave a trail of evidence behind them. It's almost like they suddenly appeared out of nowhere in North America. There's no trail of artifacts showing the evolution of the Clovis projectile weapons in either a northerly or southerly direction. In the end, neither theory of where the Clovis came from is supported by their projectiles, the most telling artifact.

The Clovis remain a mystery, and the question of the earliest Americans' origins remains. Other fields of study are turning up even earlier dates for human settlement in the Americas. DNA evidence suggests that migration took place as early as 20,000 years ago [source: San Francisco Chronicle]. Linguistic examination of the roots of Native American languages support the idea that humans have been in North America for 12,000 to 50,000 years [source: Bernard, et al].

Perhaps the settlement of the Americas didn't take place by one group of intrepid travelers who gave rise to all other cultures. And it may not matter who made it to the Americas first. One researcher suggests the earliest settlement may have come in waves from different areas [source: Live Science]. It may be that a human presence in America couldn't have taken hold without all of these groups -- the contributions of each are ultimately more important than who came first.

For more information on migration and related topics, visit the next page.

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