For decades, there has been a consensus on the migration of people through the Americas. Some 12,000 years ago, as the end of the last Ice Age approached, big game hunters followed mammoth and caribou from Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge into North America. These earliest people, called Paleoindians, settled into the interior plains of North America between 11,500 and 11,000 years ago, and from there they spread across North America and southward to the southern tip of South America following diminishing game reserves for the next 1,000 years. This Clovis model was named for a site near Clovis, New Mexico, where these hunters’ distinctive leaf-shaped spear points were first discovered in 1932. New finds and new methods of dating archaeological materials not only have opened this theory to debate but have eliminated it as a possibility altogether.
After a long and bitter debate, archaeologists have agreed that there is evidence that humans reached southern Chile at least 12,500 years ago, more than 1,000 years before Clovis, the previous benchmark for human habitation in the Americas.
Monte Verde, the Chilean site, is located on the bank of Chinchihuapi Creek in wooded foothills approximately 30 miles from the Pacific Ocean and 500 miles south of Santiago. An excavation team, led by Tom Dillehay of the University of Kentucky, surveyed the site from 1977 to 1985. Another team of archaeologists investigated the site in 1997 and confirmed that Monte Verde does establish an earlier date for human habitation.
Monte Verde is an unusual site, providing materials never before found at early American excavations. It is common to find mostly bone and stone artifacts at Paleoindian sites, which tend to be in caves or are open-air sites where delicate artifacts are not preserved. In addition, Paleoindians generally were small nomadic bands of people, and small transient groups leave virtually no marks on the land, making them invisible to archaeologists. Monte Verde was encroached by a neighboring swamp soon after the inhabitants broke camp, covering the site in a layer of peat. With no oxygen present to decay materials, Monte Verde has yielded remnants of wood plank shelters covered with hides, animal meat, digging sticks, carved bone and tusk tools, grasses tied into ropes, hearths, human fecal remains, and a child’s footprint. Dillehay has concluded that a group of 20 to 30 people occupied Monte Verde for perhaps a year before moving on.
More recently, a knoll several hundred feet away from Monte Verde has drawn some attention. A cursory excavation of the hill has yielded possible evidence of human habitation 20,000 years earlier than Monte Verde. Rather than causing an upset, independent archaeologists have verified the antiquity of the level. Dillehay and Mario Pino, of the Southern University of Chile in Valdivia, are planning to formally excavate the site in the near future.
Since the discovery and acceptance of Monte Verde, scattered sites from Wisconsin to Central and South America have indicated the presence of humans before 13,000 years ago. These discoveries are leading archaeologists to look for alternative theories about how and when people first arrived in the Americas.
- Adovasio, J. M., & Page, J. (2002). The first Americans: In pursuit of archaeology’s greatest mystery. New York: Modern Library.
- Dewar, E. (2001). Bones: Discovering the first Americans. New York: Carroll & Graf.
- Dillehay, T. D. (2000). The settlement of the Americas: A new prehistory. New York: Basic Books.