People & Culture

Humans could have arrived in the Western Hemisphere earlier than we thought 

Indigenous archeologist Paulette Steeves shows us how an ancient world could have been more complex and more populated than we imagined

Indigenous archeologist Paulette Steeves says that, based on her research across the last 24 years, people have been present in the Western Hemisphere for more than 130,00 and possibly earlier. This includes places like Alaska, pictured here. (Photo: Elijah Hiett/Unsplash)
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Every science tends to be conservative, treasuring its hard-earned knowledge and suspicious of anything that throws doubt on it. Scientific revolutions, however, depend not only on evidence but on new science applied to old questions. Paulette Steeves, Indigenous archeologist, professor at Algoma University, Canada Research Chair in Healing and Reconciliation and author of The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere, has challenged her discipline with very old evidence: Indigenous ways of knowing, gained over millennia as humans explored and flourished in this half of the world.

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Scientific consensus has long held that humans have been in the Western Hemisphere for about 11,000 years, since the arrival of peoples using “Clovis technology” to make hunting tools. (Named after the city in New Mexico where stone spear points were found in 1929, Clovis points are distinctive, and indicative of what has been considered the earliest prehistoric Paleoamerican culture.) But “based on my research across the last 24 years,” Steeves says, “people have been present in the Western Hemisphere for over 130,000 years and possibly earlier.”

Her research began after she read about archeological sites dated earlier than Clovis technology and wondered if there were more. “There are many sites in the academic literature; it just takes time to find them,” says Steeves. “I tracked down published articles on more than 500 archeological sites that pre-dated Clovis technologies in just a few weeks.” The 169 ancient sites dotted throughout this map of the Western Hemisphere all appear to long predate Clovis, the result of Steeves’ research. The oldest sites are scattered from Alaska to Florida, Brazil to Chile, and scores more are only a little younger.

Despite such numbers, archeologists who publish articles on sites that predate Clovis know they risk overzealous critique and even academic dismissal, according to Steeves. “This area of archeological research was known as an area of academic suicide,” she says.

Steeves’ key evidence is sites like Calico, California, where paleontologist L.S.B. Leakey found lithic flakes evidently chipped in the process of making stone tools, estimated to be between 50,000 and 80,000 years old. Some archeologists have argued that the Calico site has evidence of human presence as early as 200,000 years ago.

Plenty of evidence exists in Indigenous oral histories, too. “The skills needed to orally transmit history and culture across thousands of years were highly intellectual,” says Steeves. She therefore confidently presents the many “accounts of environmental events such as floods and volcanic eruptions and extinct species, such as mastodon and mammoth” as evidence of humans’ pre-Clovis antiquity in this hemisphere. Take the Osage oral tradition of an ancient battle between two groups of “great beasts” near present-day Kimmswick, Missouri. After the battle, the Osage burned the dead beasts as an offering to the Great Spirit and held a ceremony at the site every year. This site has provided evidence of stone tools and fossils of mastodon and mammoth, species extinct for more than 11,000 years.

Evidence also exists in the sheer numbers of surviving Indigenous languages. Linguist Johanna Nichols estimates that the diversity of Indigenous languages would require human arrival in the Western Hemisphere “perhaps some 35,000 years ago.” And in the paleontological record, which shows extensive mammalian migration down numerous migration corridors between the Eastern and Western hemispheres over the last two million years. Where mammals go, humans tend to follow.

Scattered across this map of the Western Hemisphere, the archeological sites are reminiscent of the first deep-field photo taken by the James Webb Space Telescope, a kaleidoscope of countless galaxies already forming soon after the Big Bang. When NASA revealed that image to the world in 2022, it changed our knowledge of the early universe. Like the telescope, Paulette Steeves shows us an ancient world, brighter, more complex and more populated than we imagined.


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This story is from the September/October 2023 Issue

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