The idea that the Clovis people, as they came to be known, were the first Americans quickly won over the research community. “The evidence was unequivocal,” said Ted Goebel, a colleague of Waters at the Center for the Study of the First Americans. Clovis sites, it turned out, were spread all over the continent, and “there was a clear association of the fauna with hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts,” Goebel said. “Again and again it was the full picture"...The applicability of this cautionary tale to the Church of Global Warming is self-apparent.
The Clovis theory, over time, acquired the force of dogma. “We all learned it as undergraduates,” Waters recalled. Any artifacts that scholars said came before Clovis, or competing theories that cast doubt on the Clovis-first idea, were ridiculed by the archaeological establishment, discredited as bad science or ignored.
Take South America. In the late 1970s, the U.S. archaeologist Tom D. Dillehay and his Chilean colleagues began excavating what appeared to be an ancient settlement on a creek bank at Monte Verde, in southern Chile. Radiocarbon readings on organic material collected from the ruins of a large tent-like structure showed that the site was 14,800 years old, predating Clovis finds by more than 1,000 years. The 50-foot-long main structure, made of wood with a hide roof, was divided into what appeared to be individual spaces, each with a separate hearth. Outside was a second, wishbone-shaped structure that apparently contained medicinal plants. Mastodons were butchered nearby. The excavators found cordage, stone choppers and augers and wooden planks preserved in the bog, along with plant remains, edible seeds and traces of wild potatoes. Significantly, though, the researchers found no Clovis points. That posed a challenge: either Clovis hunters went to South America without their trademark weapons (highly unlikely) or people settled in South America even before the Clovis people arrived.
There must have been “people somewhere in the Americas 15,000 or 16,000 years ago, or perhaps as long as 18,000 years ago,” said Dillehay, now at Vanderbilt University.
Of the researchers working sites that seemed to precede Clovis people, Dillehay was singled out for special criticism. He was all but ostracized by Clovis advocates for years. When he was invited to meetings, speakers stood up to denounce Monte Verde. “It’s not fun when people write to your dean and try to get you fired,” he recalled. “And then your grad students try to get jobs and they can’t get jobs.”
Monday, February 11, 2013
The Science Is Settled (Until It Isn't)
From the February 2013 issue of Smithsonian: