“Understanding when, how, and who colonized the Americas remains one of the most challenging and enduring questions in archaeology,” Torben Rick of the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Anthropology told Seeker. “One of the most important questions in American archaeology is: Who were the first Americans and how and when did they arrive?”
Todd Braje of the San Diego State University Department of Anthropology agrees.
“Thirty years ago, we thought we had all the answers,” he said. “Now, there are more questions than answers.”
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Nevertheless, a somewhat clearer view of early American settlement is coming to light, and one that Rick, Braje, and their colleagues address in a new paper in the journal Science.
“There is a coalescence of data — genetic, archaeological, and geologic — that support a colonization around 20,000–15,000 years ago,” Rick said. “This doesn’t preclude earlier migrations, or suggest that we should not investigate earlier migrations, but a growing body of evidence is building on intensive research that supports the 20,000–15,000 years ago timeframe, and evidence for earlier migrations is problematic and speculative.”
In the paper, he and his colleagues mention — and question — the recent discovery of the Cerutti Mastodon site in San Diego County, California. The site contains the remains of a 130,700-year-old juvenile male mastodon, which some scientists believe was butchered by hominid that was not necessarily Homo sapiens.
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One such researcher is Daniel Fisher, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology. He told Seeker that, “based on decades of experience seeing sites with evidence of human activity, and also a great deal of work on modern material trying to replicate the patterns of fractures that we see, I really know of no other way that the material of the Cerutti Mastodon site could have been produced than through human activity.”
If validated, the Cerutti find would blow a mammoth-sized hole in virtually all theories concerning when and how the Americas were first settled, given its extremely early age. For now, though, Braje, Rick, and many other archaeologists are supporting the emerging “kelp highway hypothesis.”