I’m a doctor in archaeology of the University of Paris 1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne) and researcher associated with the Center for Mexican and Central American Studies of the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs (CEMCA). With the support of CEMCA, I’m currently undertaking an investigation on the archaeological remains attributed to the Clovis culture in Central America (between the Mexican State of Chiapas and Panama). Clovis is one of the first cultures of the New World. It flourished between 13,300 and 12,800 years ago, from southern Canada to northern Venezuela. In Belize, to date, three projectile points have been attributed to the Clovis tradition.
Apart from my scientific activities, I contribute to several newspapers, especially Prensa Libre (Guatemala), El Diario de Hoy (El Salvador) and El Nuevo Herald (Florida), in the field of archaeology.
Hereby, I wish to submit to you an article on “the first Americans”, for its publication in Amandala (as a free contribution, of course). I hope that this theme will interest you. In advance, thank you for your attention.
Sébastien Perrot-Minnot, Ph. D.
French Embassy in Guatemala
Ph. D. in Archaeology of the University of Paris 1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne)
Researcher associated with the Center for Mexican and Central American Studies (CEMCA in French, the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of France)
The exploration of the origins of the civilizations undoubtedly constitutes a fascinating adventure, but also a demanding one; it indeed takes us to fields uncertain and troubled by passion. On the subject, the history of investigations on the initial human settlements of the American continent is revealing…
These investigations developed mainly from the 18th century, during the Age of Enlightenment. It is the time when the expeditions of the navigators Vitus Bering and James Cook to the Pacific Ocean inspired the first modern theories on the colonization of the “New World” by groups coming from Siberia. It is also the time of the first official study missions of pre-European remains. Monumental ruins, such as those of the Maya city of Palenque (Mexico), sowed confusion: could the human work in the New World be as old as the one in the Old World?
However, it is during the 19th century that modern archaeology really was born. Along with it spread the practice of the stratigraphic excavation, which relates the relics with the geological deposits. In 1844, an excavation of this kind, carried out in France by Jacques Boucher de Perthes, had surprising results: it uncovered stone tools associated with remains of extinct mammal species, in a context corresponding to a glacial period from time immemorial. The Prehistory took its first steps…
The advances of the new discipline, which strode across the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and then millions of years, brought the Americanist circles to a boil. Which antiquity to envisage for the man in America? Could we go back to the last glaciation, in the Late Pleistocene, more than 10,000 years ago? Fierce conflicts opposed the supporters of this hypothesis to their detractors… Until 1927, when archaeologists found a projectile point lodged between two ribs of a large bison of the Pleistocene in Folsom (New Mexico).
In the 1930’s, the excavations at the Blackwater Draw site (New Mexico) revealed an older material, which allowed man to characterize the Clovis culture. This one was identified, afterwards, in numerous other places, from southern Canada to northern Venezuela (in Belize, to date, three projectile points of the Clovis tradition have been discovered).
The Clovis culture is considered to have flourished at least between 13,300 and 12,800 years ago. For a long time, the idea that it represented the first American native tradition received a broad consensus. Nevertheless, it was attacked with more and more strength during the 1980’s, before being finally abandoned in the next decade, as a consequence of the exemplary work completed at Monte Verde (Chile), where archaeologists were able to show evidence of a more than 14,600 year-old occupation.
Yet, these dynamics didn’t stop there: after Monte Verde, other sites led the research even deeper into the past of pre-Columbian America. Nowadays, the oldest occupations of the continent, among those which are accepted without too much reservations by the scientific community, have an antiquity comprised between 15,000 and 16,000 years; in the northeastern United States, however, dates of up to 22,000 years ago have been suggested.
The insight on the age of the human presence in America is a central aspect of a hypothesis that provokes currently heated controversies: a supposed colonization of the east of the United States by bearers of the Solutrean culture, which developed between 22,000 and 17,000 before present in France, Spain and Portugal. The main pleaders of this idea, archaeologists Dennis Stanford (Smithsonian Institution), and Bruce Bradley (University of Exeter, England), invoke morphological and technological similarities between stone artifacts uncovered on both sides of the Atlantic.
Of course, their argument is worth being examined carefully and without prejudice. For the moment, however, it appears weak; aside from the uncertainties that surround the chronology of the initial peopling of America as well as the question of the possibility of the crossing of the northern Atlantic ocean in the middle of the Ice Age, we note that essential elements of the Solutrean culture remain absent from the Paleoindian legacy (that of the first cultures of the American continent). Moreover, unlike the relationship between this legacy and Asia, the “Solutrean hypothesis” is not supported by either biological or linguistic evidence.
In this field of the Paleoindian archaeology, where not only scientific but also identity-related tensions are being felt, it turns out crucial to distinguish very clearly the different levels of hypothesis, from the proof. And as David Meltzer emphasizes in his book First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America (2009), “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”.
1. Paleoindian hunters. Drawing: University of Nebraska State Museum.
2. Clovis projectile point from the Guatemalan highlands. Photo: Sébastien Perrot-Minnot.
3. Incised bone fragment discovered in Vero Beach (Florida), and representing a mammoth or mastodon. Photo: Chip Clark, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
4. Giant sloth’s femur from the Pleistocene, exhibited at the Museum of Belize. Photo: Sébastien Perrot-Minnot.
5. Native antiquities from different periods, in a case at the Anchorage Museum, Alaska. Photo: Sébastien Perrot-Minnot.