When the first Europeans visited North American, there were populations of Native Americans already living here. Many cultures of Native peoples hold the belief that they have always lived on these American continents, but scholars continue to ponder questions about their origins. Did the peoples of the Americas migrate here, and if so, when and from where? In recent decades, archaeologists, anthropologists, and college textbook editors have treated one hypothesis as fact: the Clovis people were the first people in the Americas. However, recent finds have turned up data that contradicts this hypothesis. Evidence of a pre-Clovis civilization has arisen at many different sites across North and South America.
According to the Bering Strait hypothesis, the Clovis were ancestors of the hunting and gathering cultures of northern Russia, who followed the herds of reindeer and other prehistoric game across the Bering land bridge and into the Americas about 11,500 years ago. For the past half century, it was commonly assumed that these were the first people to inhabit this continent. They crossed the land bridge, trudged through an ice-free corridor into the United States, and scattered south and east from there, eventually reaching South America 500 years later. The dates of the opening of this ice-free corridor also line up with the date on a projectile point found with the remains of a mammoth in Clovis, New Mexico, which also dated to 11,500 years ago. At the time of the discovery, the point was the oldest artifact found in North America that was scientifically verified by radio carbon dating.
The uniquely formed spear point became known as the Clovis point, and the group of people who manufactured this point became known as the Clovis Culture. Many scientists therefore believed that the Clovis Culture must be the original migrants into the Americas. However, this hypothesis had its weak points. In order for the people who came through the ice-free corridor to reach South America within 500 years, they would have had to sprint their way through the United States and Mesoamerica. Furthermore, many sites across the Americas that have yielded pre-Clovis artifacts, evidence of a human population before the first of the Clovis arrived.
Following the discovery of the Clovis spear points, hundreds of pre-Clovis finds were announced and then dismissed for failure to positively answer one or more of the three most crucial questions asked when dating an archaeological site:
- Are there artifacts of indisputable human manufacture that are recovered in primary depositional context?
- Is there clear and unambiguous stratigraphy?
- Have multiple radiometric determinations shown indisputable internal consistency?
Then in 1974, Dr. James Adovasio began research at what would later be recognized as the first verified pre-Clovis site. Located in Washington County, Pennsylvania, a natural overhanging rock shelter known as Meadowcroft would become the location for 30 years of research. Eventually this site would yield 2 million artifacts ranging from the microscopic plant remains to bifaced stone spear points. These Late Pleistocene artifacts would subsequently be dated to about 14,000 years ago.
Several other sites now under investigation appear to be as old as, if not older, than the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter. Cactus Hill, located near the Nottoway River in southern Virginia has yielded the oldest confirmed record to date of human habitation in North America. Four inches below a sealed Clovis layer, in an unmistakably separate older horizon, are hearth and charcoal concentrations and, beneath these, an array of stone tools. The hearth and tools horizon has been carbon dated at or about 18,000 years ago. Another pre-Clovis site called Topper is located on the Savannah River in South Carolina. Dr. Albert Goodyear has found an assemblage of stone flakes, burins, microblades, and blade cores there. Some of the chert used to make these artifacts was not locally mined, indicating that it was brought in from somewhere else. The lithic suite of artifacts dates back to at least 15, 000 to 16,000 years ago.
Virginia Department of History Resources
- Solving History’s Mysteries: The History Discovery Lab – teacher guide and activity book
- Virginia Archaeology Resources for Teachers and Students
- The History Discovery Lab
Virginia Historical Society
- Becoming a Homeplace (PDF) – Archaeology is the systematic recovery, by scientific methods, of material evidence remaining from the past. These artifacts or materials are traces of human culture, technology, and behavior and may hold clues about the inhabitants of a particular site. Training and skill are required in order to analyze and interpret these artifacts.
Cultural stewardship refers to the practice of becoming an informed and responsible individual who recognizes the importance of protecting and preserving the traces of our collective history. These cultural resources form our collective record. Once lost, they cannot be recovered. An uninformed public may purposefully, inadvertently, or unknowingly cause damage to fragile nonrenewable cultural resources, or through acts of thoughtless vandalism and looting destroy important scientific data and artifacts that cannot be replaced. Archaeological artifacts and sites are a limited resource and once destroyed or otherwise removed are a non-renewable loss for us all. It is not clear why certain people and groups purposefully damage archaeological sites; however it is important that students recognize their role in preservation and protection.
Source: The Virginia Department of Historic Resources whose mission is to foster, encourage, and support the stewardship of Virginia's significant historic, architectural, and cultural resources.
Stewardship In Action
The Florida Archaeological Site Stewardship Program has developed three site stewardship programs: Site Stewardship Agreement, Stewardship Volunteer Program, and Sitewatch Program. Each of these programs depends upon the cooperation of landowners, private citizens, non-profit organizations, and the state to protect its archaeological resources.
The Scientific Method
In archaeology, the scientific method generally means one of three things:
- using scientific logic and reasoning to make sense of an archaeological site and studies (including hypothesis testing)
- using information and techniques from the natural sciences (chemistry, physics, geology) or biological sciences(biology, botany, zoology)
- using both approaches, which of course is best!
Regardless of the types of study being undertaken, all scientific research – and archaeology is scientific research – must proceed through several well defined steps. These steps are:
- formulation of a hypothesis
- explanation of the procedures to be employed (this is the research design that states explicitly what the in the field is going to prove or disprove concerning the hypothesis)
- acquisition of data (these are the actual field excavations and recovered data)
- analysis of data (what is done with the archaeological data once it is back in the lab or the classroom and ready for examination)
- verification (seeing whether or not the data supports the hypothesis)
“Archaeology of American Indian sites in Virginia is almost always done today in collaboration with Virginia’s Indians, in contrast to the way it was usually done in the past. More and more archaeologists are learning that artifacts and sites are not impersonal scientific objects but are part of the lives of the ancestors of Virginia’s first people and their descendants. Collaborative archaeology provides an alternative voice in the writing of Virginia’s Indian history. This voice is one that fills the long silences spanning the millennia before Europeans arrived, as well as the critical silences that exist within colonial-era documents.” – Jeffrey L. Hantman, Ph.D.
“The histories of Virginia’s Indian communities are significant in their own right; they are also essential, irreplaceable tributaries to the larger story of Virginia. We are fortunate that portions of Virginia’s Indian history and heritage are still accessible to all of us . . . fortunate that Virginia Indians are, in fact still here, still able and willing to tell their own stories; that their cultures are living and changing, but still firmly intact, like trees with new foliage and thousand-year-old root systems.” – David Bearinger, Director of Grants and Public Programs, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities
The Virginia Indian Heritage Program
The Virginia Indian Heritage Program is helping redress centuries of historical omission, exclusion, and misrepresentation. It creates opportunities for Virginians of all ages, as well as visitors to the state, to learn about the history and cultures of Virginian Indian people and communities, past and present.
The Program interprets Virginia Indian history and cultures in ways that are accurate, culturally sensitive, and broadly accessible. Its benefits touch every citizen of Virginia, especially teachers, students, and the tribes themselves.
Virginia Foundation for the Humanities
The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) brings the humanities fully into Virginia’s public life, assisting individuals and communities in their efforts to understand the past, confront important issues in the present, and shape a promising future.
Virginia Indian Tribes
Today there are 11 state-recognized tribes in Virginia and two small reservations. See Virginia's First People Past and Present for more information.