COLUMBIA, S.C.—Discerning the story of America’s prehistoric past is a bit like groping through an unfamiliar room in the dark.
One learned scientist’s tattooing tool is another’s piece of rock. Ask them to agree how long it has been there and you’re bound to set off an argument that makes Seattle’s whether-to-monorail conflict seem like a tea party.
So it goes with evolving thought in archaeology. We all know the prevailing theory. Our children’s high-school textbooks talk about the first Americans coming from Asia about 13,000 years ago across the Bering land bridge, chasing big game through Siberia, Alaska and down through Canada and the Pacific Northwest between two ice sheets. That would be about 4,000 years before Kennewick Man is believed to have died on the shores of the Columbia River.
My first stop was a four-day archaeological conference, “Clovis in the Southeast,” that attracted about 400 archaeologists and others. And I thought I was in for a break from politics when I left town during election season. Not quite.
Under the established theory, the land-bridge travelers’ descendents were or became Clovis—the first identifiable culture in early America, distinguished by a distinctive spear or arrow point. But in recent years, evidence emerged to challenge Clovis as the first people in America. Clovis culture shows up beginning about 11,500 years ago. But human artifacts some archaeologists believe to be 1,000 to a few thousand years older have been found at a handful of sites from Wisconsin to Monte Verde, Chile.
At the last Clovis-related conference six years ago, Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History advanced what at the time was almost heresy. Soon, he and a colleague will publish a book about their theory that Clovis point technology is derived from that of the Solutrean culture in what is now Spain. Following seals as the climate warmed, people moved north, hopscotching by boat through the Arctic and down into what is now the U.S. Southeast. They spread westward, not the other way around.