Changing Concepts of New World Origins
Putting a New Face on the First Americans
About the Lecture
Studies of several 9,000 year old human remains from the northwest region of the United States have identified a high incidence of Caucasoid physical traits that appear to distinguish the Pleistocene and Early Holocene populations from modern northern Asians and American Indians. New data from a genetic marker called lineage X suggest a possible ancient link between Eurasians and Native Americans. Furthermore, studies of early archaeological sites recently discovered in southeastern North American suggest strong technological ties between the First Americans and the Upper Paleolithic of Europe.
About the Speaker
Dennis Stanford directs the Smithsonian Institution's Paleoindian/Paleoecology Program and is Chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the Museum of Natural History. He received a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of New Mexico in 1972. He was appointed Associate Curator of Archaeology at the Smithsonian in 1972 and since has developed a program of international collaboration among interdisciplinary scientists focusing on the origins of New World human populations and environmental changes at the end of the Pleistocene and early Holocene time periods. Mr. Stanford has led excavations at Paleoindian sites in Colorado and New Mexico and is now directing a multidisciplinary research team working in Northwest Alaska to discover evidence of the earliest human occupation of North America. Mr. Stanford has authored or co-authored over 100 research articles and five books covering various topics relative to the peopling of the Americas.
President Agger called the 2097th meeting to order at 8:16 p.m. on December 11, 1998. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2096th meeting and they were approved.
The speaker for the 2097th meeting was Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution. The title of his presentation was, “Changing Concepts of the New World Origins: Putting a New Face on the First Americans.”
The last two years are the most exciting in recent decades. Recent and ongoing discoveries are changing the face of North American archeology. The old theory of American origins had a population called Clovis people spreading to North America 11,000 years ago when an ice-free land bridge from Siberia opened up. The Clovis people were named after the distinctive style of fluted projectile points they used. They are also attributed with eating everything in sight and causing the extinction of the indigenous mammoth. Archeologists known as the “Clovis Police” staunchly supported this model of the Clovis people as the first people in America. This is a neat story, but it isn't so!
However, putting things in context, the Clovis people were much more than mammoth hunters. They were forgers and did eat everything. As far as the mammoths go, any one group of Clovis people probably killed one mammoth in their lifetime, and then talked about it for the next 50 years. They certainly did not cause the extinction of the mammoth. Most such extinctions were caused by the fact that the species was already hanging on the edge.
A most recent assault on the old Clovis theory came recently from the excavation of an archeological site in Monte Verde in south central Chile. Here, human artifacts radiocarbon dated at 33,000 years old were uncovered. These early inhabitants clearly predate the Clovis people. So much for the dictates of the “Clovis Police.”
We now have had ample opportunity to look at the archeology of Siberia to look for evidence of ancestors of Clovis people. However, there really is not much evidence there of a direct Clovis predecessor. Further, radioactive dating of the original Clovis inhabitants in the Americas stops at 10,900 years old. Ironically, these oldest Clovis folks are in the southeastern part of North America Florida and Tennessee, not Siberia! But if Clovis did develop in the Southeast, who did Clovis develop from? When did it happen? And where did those people come from? If it wasn't Siberia, where was it?
To further complicate the story, characteristic Clovis technologies such as projectile points have recently been identified in Northern Europe. The consequent studies of the archaeological sites back in southern North America also show strong ties between the first Americans and the Upper Paleolithic of Europe.
Moving on, recent studies of several 9,000 year old human remains from the northwestern United States identify a high incidence of Caucasoid physical traits that distinguish the Pleistocene and Early Holocene populations from the modern northern Asians and North American Indians. On a similar note, DNA studies had previously identified only four unique population groups in early America. These were categorized as Groups A, B, C, and D. Now, a fifth group, categorized as Group X has been identified. Interestingly, this DNA ties to early populations of Northern Japan — and again, not to Siberia. Significantly, with our new found “Madam X” in our gene pool, the old model of the Unilineal Route from Siberia is dead.
Current research and data support the concept that the early American populations were all connected. They came here from many different places, using many different migration routes and were composed of many different ethnic origins. And they continued to come — and return, over a long period of time. Planned research will pursue these avenues and will most likely show that we were all quite connected in the beginning which is not a bad place to end up either.
Mr. Stanford closed his presentation and kindly answered questions from the floor. President Agger thereupon thanked Mr. Stanford for the society, announced the next meeting and made the usual parking announcement. She then adjourned the 2097th meeting to the 128th Annual Meeting of the Society at 9:57 p.m.