Homo heidelbergensis at the Gates of Europe and the Peopling of the Americas

One of the biggest debates in North American archaeology concerns the timing of the peopling of the America’s. Basically, it boils down to Clovis or Pre-Clovis. One of the more interesting thing about this debate is the way archaeological evidence gets used and critiqued by the various participants.


There are a number of sites in North and South America that have been brought forward as evidence of a Pre-Clovis occupation and there are a number of critiques of these sites. The critiques run the gamut from questioning the association between artifacts and fauna/stratigraphy (the artifacts are intrusive or the dating was wrong) to questioning the nature of the artifacts or feature (the artifacts are eoliths and the hearths were caused by lightening strikes or other natural phenomena). I bring this up because I am in the process of reading Clive Gamble’s The Palaeolithic Societies Of Europe and he mentions a similar situation concerning the peopling of Europe. There too, one finds a division between proponents of a long chronology (Europe was inhabited circa 750k ago, or more) and proponents of a short chronology Europe was peopled circa 500k ago). A lot of the counterarguments used against the long chronology are roughly the same as those that are used against Pre-Clovis. The artifacts are really eoliths or geofacts, the association of artifact with stratigraphy/fauna was coincidental and intrusive, and in any case the bone was misidentified as a hominid when it was really a bear, horse, etc. Now, all of these criticisms of Pre-Clovis in America and the long chronology in Europe may be (and in some cases, actually are) correct. What this tells me, however, is that we do not have an appropriate body of theory (helloooo Martin) to aide us. Granted we have some examples, such as the Bantu expansion in Africa, to help, but this is an expansion into an already peopled area and is likely to look somewhat different archaeologically than a move into unoccupied territory. Just thinking out loud here, so feel free to tell me what you think the archaeological record should look like in these kinds of situations…

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13 Responses

  1. Ultimately, the role of theory is to explain the fossil evidence that ends up being discovered. As new fossils are discovered, the theories are either confirmed or discarded. That’s how archaeology is supposed to work. Until more fossils are discovered, there isn’t enough data to make any kind of real judgment. Nobody is going to win the debate until that happens.

  2. … so feel free to tell me what you think the archaeological record should look like in these kinds of situations…
    It should have a /italic HTML tag.

  3. The Polynesian expansion should be a good example of peopling virgin territory.

  4. Actually, at this point, there should be no more arguing about Clovis/pre-Clovis in the Americas. There has been DNA testing of coprolites in Oregon (fossil poo) and it’s human and it’s definitely pre-Clovis. That was absolutely not created by a lightning strike, bear, horse, cow, bison, river, or anything else. They also tested every human involved in the excavation and the DNA is quite distinct. There is a whole series of sites in South America now, too, with pre-Clovis dates, not just Mesa Verde. They’re all down the west coast at this point, from Alaska to British Columbia, (skipping the US) to Mexico, to Peru, to Chile, plus some in Brazil, truckloads of excellent carbon 14 dates. One or two, here or there, might be thrown out, yeah. But there’s no way we can ignore that tidal of evidence now. In the US, the older generation of archeologists may insist on dying of old age before they agree, though. Sometimes that’s the way it works.
    As far as Homo erectus/heidelbergensis/antecessor in Europe, the story is much the same, as you say. We can quibble about tools from now til doomsday. But if you look in Spain, especially at Atapuerca, and at cave after cave filled with bones, well, it’s pretty darn clear. Those are not bears, let me tell you. They very nearly look like Neanderthals — not quite, but nearly. And the very earliest teeth and other jaw fragments are coming back with C14 dates at one MILLION years ago. So, there’s really very little reason to go on fussing about nobody in Europe at 700 thousand. Still, they will, they will.

  5. Sorry, that was supposed to be a “tidal WAVE” of evidence. I got carried away.
    Have a peek at “The Last Human: Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Human Ancestors” by Esteban Sarmiento (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007) — they have lovely reconstructions of all those hominids as well as photos of the skulls. They’re a bit behind the times on H. antecessor, though, since they’ve now found skulls as I understand, because although these guys weren’t burying each other yet, they were doing what’s referred to as “corpse cashing,” shoving the dead into a pit at the back of a cave. Another book I have, by Ian Tattersall, says that H. antecessor more or less just popped into Spain briefly, but didn’t stay long, so that doesn’t count. That was before a lot of those caves were opened up. He might have changed his mind since he wrote that book, so I won’t reference it.

  6. By the way — one more little point and then I’ll go away and leave you alone — it doesn’t really matter so much when people got to Europe in the Paleolithic, because, back then, Europe was the back of beyond. It was a real backwater, behind the times. People were just using Oldowan technology. The real cutting edge stuff was farther south. Africa and India (plus the Near East, in the middle) was Where It Was At. The Far East has some interesting developments, but they were rather isolated, too. So, we really ought to focusing on Africa and India, not quibbling over who’s on First. Let’s look at home plate!

  7. Theory is very good in the context of a concrete investigation. It’s the disembodied, generalised variety that should be a capital crime.
    But to my mind, what we lack in these two peopling debates is good enough, and voluminous enough, evidence. Let’s find a few complete skeletons and some really thick and finds-rich cave deposits. Until then, the debates can’t go anywhere.

  8. One thing I can’t figure out is why the Clovis people (modern Clovis-first anthropologists) are resistant to the idea that the Clovites may have displaced an earlier people? Nothing says that there could only be one (or two, three, four, etc) migrations into the Americas, right?

  9. Nothing at Atapuerca is C14 dated at a million years ago. C14 doesn’t work that far back. The dating is a combination of other methods, including stratigraphy, magnetic reversals, fossils found in association with the remains, and maybe a few other methods. It’s not very controversial anymore, but it’s not C14.

  10. After hitting post, I see I misspelled my email adress. On the assumption that my remarks will be deleted, here they are with the correct address. Sorry if it repeats.
    Nothing at Atapuerca is C14 dated at a million years ago. C14 doesn’t work that far back. The dating is a combination of other methods, including stratigraphy, magnetic reversals, fossils found in association with the remains, and maybe a few other methods. It’s not very controversial anymore, but it’s not C14.

  11. So sorry, you are indeed correct. Atapuerca was NOT dated by C14. I am having a bit of trouble locating the particular files, as they are buried in a stack of papers four feet tall by now. The first notice I saw was in “Independent Online” in 6/29/2007 (http://www.int.iol.co.za/general/news/newsprint.php?art_id=nw20070629192555723C349…) “A very old tooth.” Next they found a piece of a jaw with, as I recall, 2 teeth attached. Later still, this year I believe, they found nearly whole skulls and post-cranial remains. Atapuerca, Spain is the main location, with several specific caves involved — Sima de los Huesos, Sima del Elefante, Cueva de los Zarpasos, Tres Simas Boca Norte, Gran Dolina, and so on. If you can read Spanish, there is a great deal of material available on the net under “Atapuerca.” At one time, I saw a photo of the excavator peering over a table covered with human skeletal remains, all of which were dated earlier than 700 kya.
    As for the Americas, the proof is in the pudding, so to speech. With the DNA, the middens, the hearths, the tools, and so on in South America with large numbers of dates between 11-13 kya, it’s pretty clear somebody must have at least passed down the coast of N. America before 11 kya when Clovis was underway. It doesn’t necessarily take whole skeletons to prove it. The real question is how early were they? There are some enigmatic footprints preserved in volcanic ash in Mexico that suggest somebody walked down that far very early indeed…before the last Ice Age even got started! These bits all came from Science News, which has a good index, if you’re a subscriber, so don’t wait for me to dig them out of the stack!

  12. might i suggest the edited book “colonization of unfamiliar landscapes”? plenty of theory, plenty useful in my research.

  13. I just got the latest National Geographic update. You must check it out! They show the bones of “Eva de Naharon” or Eve of Naharon, the oldest human found in the Americas, at Tulum, near Cancun, Mexico. She dates to sometime before 13 thousand years ago. Certainly pre-Clovis! At that time, so the archeologist notes, the sea level was 200 feet or 60 meters lower than today, and the peninsula down there was no peninsula, but part of a broad, flat plain. He also notes that her physiology is unlike that of the northern Asians whose language is most similar to that of several North American Indian languages. Instead, she more resembles South Asians, especially her skull — something I have previously read about in Science News, in reference to a population of now-extinct Native Americans in Baja California (essentially the same area). DNA studies have linked certain population groups in the Americas with the Japanese and with Tibetans, of all people! If I can dig out the study from my garage-sized stack of papers, I will write back. I think it was in PLoS but it might have been PNAS, sometime in the last year or 2.

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