North Florida discovery could re-write the story of the first humans in the Americas

May 17, 2016 | 4 comments

By Roger Ebberly

“This could change everything about what we think about the first human inhabitants of South and North America,” says Jorge Levy, an anthropologist at Chile’s Universidad Diego Portales. “It means that we will need to develop new theories and will probably come to new conclusions,” he said.

Early humans in North Florida.

Early humans on the North Florida savannah.

What Levy is referring to is the stunning discovery that humans were living on Florida’s Aucilla River, 20 miles east of Tallahassee, 1,500 years before the so-called Clovis people were leaving their mark on the U.S. Southwest. Until now, the Clovis people, named for a stone spearpoint that they made, were considered the first human community in the Americas, arriving about 13,000 years ago.

Archeologists from Texas A&M University and Florida State University have been pulling stone tools from a deep pool in the Aucilla River for four years. The tools were found alongside the bones of mastodons and and other large prehistoric animals that provided food for the early humans.

One of the tools recovered from the river, according to researchers, was sophisticated “bifacial” stone knife, one with a blade chipped to sharpness on both edges

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Carbon dating showed the tools and human-made marks in the animal bones to be 14,550 years old. The findings of the Texas A&M and FSU scientists were reported a week ago in the journal Science Advances.

FSU researchers measure mastadon tusk.

FSU researchers measure mastadon tusk.

What most intrigues Levy is the fact that 14,500 years ago there was no ice bridge between Siberia and Alaska. For more than 70 years, the prevailing theory has been that the first humans entered the Americas from Asia across the ice. “This turns that idea on its head since there was only open ocean there 14,500 ago,” says Levy. “It was in period of warmer temperatures preceding the last ice age. For years, scientists in Latin America have been told that their ideas of trans-Pacific crossings were impossible and that all humans in the hemisphere entered through North American and migrated south.”

Levy says that South American scientists can now begin to look seriously at evidence of earlier human habitation, particularly in Peru and Ecuador, that North America scientists had previously discounted. “We have stone tools that we believe date to as early as 13,500 to 14,000 years ago but because of problems in the handling of the objects, there were questions about the validity of the dating. Now we will go back and take another look.” Officially, he says, the first humans arrived in South American 12,000 to 12,500 years ago.

The excavation site of the Florida discovery is a 30-foot-deep sinkhole in a part of the Aucilla River known as Half-Mile Run. In the late Pleistocene, when sea levels were some 300 feet lower and Florida was significantly drier, the sinkhole was a spring-fed pond that was a water source for animals and people.

Lead project researcher, Texas A&M’s Michael Waters, says the Aucilla River site should answer the objections of potential critics and presents the strongest case for pre-Clovis inhabitation of all the known North American sites.

“We have clear artifacts, they were excavated meticulously, and they were in place,” Waters says. “They were in a solid geological context, covered by four meters of sediment, and covered by a shell layer that sealed the complete deposit, and itself dated to 14,400 years ago. We have 71 radiocarbon dates throughout the entire sequence. If people don’t believe this site, they’re not going to believe anything.”

 

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