Indigenous archaeologist argues humans may have arrived here 130,000 years ago

The dominant story in archaeology has long been that humans came to North America around 12,000 years ago. But Indigenous archaeologist Paulette Steeves points to mounting evidence suggesting human migration may have occurred closer to 130,000 ago.

The dominant view that humans first came to North America during the last ice age is increasingly challenged

In her book The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere, archaeologist Paulette Steeves argues that the settlement of the Americas may have occurred closer to 130,000 ago. (University of Nebraska Press/Algoma University)

*Originally published on January 13, 2022.

An old story about the "Old Stone Age" in North America is now giving way to new evidence — or to be precise, evidence that is much, much older than scientists used to accept.

Archaeologists long believed that the first peoples to set foot on this continent arrived by crossing a land connection, the Bering Strait, from Siberia at the end of the last ice age, around 11,500 to 12,000 years ago. They are often called 'Clovis people' — named after the first discovery of stone tools used around this time, at a site near Clovis, New Mexico.

These artifacts are called the Gault Assemblage from the Gault Site in Texas, and are dated to be 16,000 - 21,000 years old. (A to D, F, and L) Bifaces. (E) Blade core. (G) Quartz projectile point. (H and I) Projectile points. (K) Projectile point tip. (M, V, and W) Blade. (N) Unifacial tool. (O and T) Gravers. (P) Discoidal biface. (Q) End scraper. (R to U) Modified flake tools. (X and Y) Lanceolate projectile points. (Nancy Velchoff, Gault School of Archaeological Research) (Nancy Velchoff, Gault School of Archaeological Research)

This period is relatively recent when compared to the history of homo sapiens, and it can conflict with the view of many Indigenous people who believe their ancestors have lived here "since time immemorial."

"For many, many years, people thought the Clovis were the first people of North America, and that was the primary paradigm," said Steven Holen, research director at the Center for American Paleolithic Research. 

That paradigm has now shifted, due to studies such as the 2017 analysis of fossilized footprints at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, which suggested a human presence dating back at least 20,000 years. 

Footprints found in New Mexico were dated to between 21,000 - 23,000 years old, and were likely left by prehistoric teenagers. (National Park Service, USGS and Bournemouth University)

However, for those archaeologists who once faced aggressive pushback for challenging the so-called 'Clovis First' theory, the recent relaxing of archaeological dogma is too little, and too lacking in humility.

"This was an area that was an academic violence against Indigenous people," said Paulette Steeves, author of The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere. Her book gathers together the latest evidence and arguments in favour of believing the human presence in North America goes back many tens of thousands of years — at a minimum.

"We're supposed to believe that early hominids got to northern Asia 2.1 million years ago and then for some reason didn't go any farther north," Steeves explained. "A few thousand more kilometres, they would have been in North America. So it does not make any sense whatsoever."

Steeves is a professor of sociology at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, and a Canada Research Chair in Healing and Reconciliation. For her, the meaning of "time immemorial" need not conflict with the archaeological project of dating the initial peopling of this hemisphere.

"This is where their cultures grew," she said. "This is where their languages grew. This is where they're from. They can tell their story in any way they want."

Guests in this episode:

and Steven Holen from the Center for American Paleolithic Research.

Tom Williams is a project archaeologist working on the oldest cultural materials recovered from the Gault Site in Texas.

Paulette Steeves is the author of The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere, and associate professor of sociology at Algoma University. Dr. Steeves also created the publicly available Indigenous Paleolithic Database of the Americas.

*This episode was produced by Tom Howell.

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