Monte Verde Revisited

From the Editors of Scientific American Discovering Archaeology


Monte Verde, near the southern tip of Chile, is arguably the most important archaeological site in the New World -- a landmark excavation that shattered a paradigm that for 70 years had explained the peopling of the Americas.

Conventional wisdom had been that the first humans to enter the Americas were hunters of the Clovis culture who crossed the then-dry Bering Strait into Alaska about 13,500 calendar years ago. They are named for the New Mexico site where their trademark fluted spear points were first found. Before them, the New World was untouched by humanity.

But the ancient settlement that archaeologist Tom Dillehay found on the banks of Chinchihuapi Creek, more than 10,000 miles south of the Bering Strait, yielded radiocarbon dates about 1,000 years older than the oldest Clovis sites. He reported evidence of wood-framed, hide-covered structures, along with stone tools, hearths, wooden implements, butchered mastodon bones, knotted twine and cordage, and other artifacts.

(Dates in archaeology typically are presented in radiocarbon-dated years before present: "rcbp." They can be calibrated to calendar years before the present, which are identified as "cal BP." Thus, the Clovis barrier is at 11,500 rcbp or 13,500 cal BP.)

The question of who were the New World's first immigrants and when they arrived was thrown wide-open for the first time since 1927.

But most scientists hate to walk away from a paradigm, particularly one that has served as long and as well as the formidable "Clovis Barrier." Those who would challenge such a paradigm face prolonged, meticulous examination and occasionally stubborn resistance. That is exactly what Dillehay, now of the University of Kentucky, met when he reported results of the Monte Verde excavations he began in 1977.

But in 1997, a panel of 12 eminent experts in early American archaeology studied Dillehay's evidence and visited the site. They concluded Monte Verde was indeed a habitation site and that it predated the Clovis culture. The long debate was over, and the Clovis paradigm was shattered.

But now the Monte Verde site is being challenged again -- in considerable detail. Stuart J. Fiedel, an archaeologist with John Milner Associates who has published widely on the prehistory of the Americas, analyzed the two epic volumes in which Dillehay documented every aspect of his site. Fiedel's conclusion: Problems with Dillehay's documentation raise questions about the provenience (the location, in both space and time, from which it came) of virtually every "compelling" artifact Dillehay cites. Fiedel considers the alleged shortcomings crippling if not fatal to the Monte Verde site.

Scientific American Discovering Archaeology is publishing, in this special section, the full text of Fiedel's report. Dillehay (and many of his colleagues) and Michael Collins, an important co-author with Dillehay on some Monte Verde reports, accepted our offers to write formal responses to Fiedel's paper. We also invited seven widely acknowledged experts to comment on the renewed debate. This is a highly unusual venue for the initial presentation of such a scientific disagreement, and we at Scientific American Discovering Archaeology did not take this step lightly. We acknowledge that publishing these papers bypasses the tradition of peer review, which is required for publication in scientific journals, and we accept that we may be criticized for doing so.

However, after a great deal of discussion among our staff and after seeking the advice of trusted experts, we concluded the issue is of overwhelming importance to our understanding of the peopling of the Americas, and that rumors of the work inevitably would lead to informal and perhaps misguided discussions without input from all parties. Here are the arguments, the responses, and the discussions.

Additionally, one of the most important conferences on New World prehistory in more than 50 years -- the Clovis and Beyond symposium in Santa Fe October 28-31, 1999 -- will assemble most specialists on the topic to discuss the state of knowledge about when and how the New World was settled. We felt it was extremely important that participants in that conference have this information available in its entirety.

Scientific American Discovering Archaeology has absolutely no position on the issues raised in this special section, and publishing it in no way implies confidence or doubt about any opinions expressed. Our only purpose is to present this information accurately, fairly, and quickly.


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