Friday, April 04, 2008

The Early Birds

Finally, some hard evidence to show that Monte Verde wasn't first. It's been pretty much accepted by everyone that Clovis wasn't first, but the oldest, certainly datable materials have been from Monte Verde. There have been tons of people claiming carbon from a fire or hearth dating to some absurd number, like 24,000 years, but nothing concrete. It's something that people in the know have been pulling their hair out over, since everything in them says that people were here earlier, but we had nothing to prove it.

This isn't the kind of date I would have fantasized about, that date is 20,000+, but 14,340 is pretty damned good. I just feel, with a degree of understanding about human nature, that if we were building boats, or roaming 20,000 years ago, we found our way to North and South America. Too bad the fuckers were so transigent that they likely never stayed in one place too long. And if Monte Verde, way in the southern part of Chile, was dated at more than 13,000 years, where are all the earlier people that traveled down? Did they come straight from the Pacific Islands? I find that hard to swallow because of the length of the journey, but damnit if Heyerdahl didn't make it. Granted, he was heading west which is easier than east. Still, it's possible.

And the theory of people following the coastline is impossible to deny. A group following the coastline and ignoring big game in favor of fishing could make the journey very quickly, maybe in a decade or less. And the fact that the feces discovered had little bison in it seems to indicate a reliance on smaller game.

And, for me, the Solutrean hypothesis is also hard to ignore. Again, a journey is possible, and a group following the southern glacier via small boats could make the journey quickly. If only we could find evidence in the Eastern US indicating an early presence. Still, this does not explain the first people to come to the continent.

These fecal droppings, otherwise known as poo, confirm East Asian origin, so Solutrean or not, people from Asia were certainly here and I would wager they were the first. I just know that there is evidence out there waiting to confirm a first steps date of well more than 20,000 years ago.

Again, I'm copying the whole Yahoo! article since they delete the articles after a week or so.

By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, AP Science Writer Thu Apr 3, 7:20 PM ET

WASHINGTON - New evidence shows humans lived in North America more than 14,000 years ago, 1,000 years earlier than had previously been known. Discovered in a cave in Oregon, fossil feces yielded DNA indicating these early residents were related to people living in Siberia and East Asia, according to a report in Thursday's online edition of the journal Science.

"This is the first time we have been able to get dates that are undeniably human, and they are 1,000 years before Clovis," said Dennis L. Jenkins, a University of Oregon archaeologist, referring to the Clovis culture, well known for its unique spear-points that have been studied previously.

Humans are widely believed to have arrived in North America from Asia over a land-bridge between Alaska and Siberia during a warmer period. A variety of dates has been proposed and some are in dispute.

Few artifacts were found in the cave, leading Jenkins to speculate that these people stayed there only a few days at a time before moving on, perhaps following game animals or looking for other food.

The petrified poop — coprolites to scientists — is yielding a look at the diet of these ancient Americans, Jenkins said.

While the analysis is not yet complete, he said there are bones of squirrels, bison hair, fish scales, protein from birds and dogs and the remains of plants such as grass and sunflowers.

The oldest of several coprolites studied is 14,340 calendar years old, said co-author Eske Willerslev, director of the Centre for Ancient Genetics at Denmark's University of Copenhagen.

"The Paisley Cave material represents, to the best of my knowledge, the oldest human DNA obtained from the Americas," he said. "Other pre-Clovis sites have been claimed, but no human DNA has been obtained."

The date for the new coprolites is similar to that of Monte Verde in southern Chile, where human artifacts have been discovered, added Willerslev.

Jenkins said it isn't clear exactly who these people living in the Oregon caves were, since there were few artifacts found. He said there was one stone tool, a hand tool used perhaps to polish or grind or mash bones or fat.

"We are not saying that these people were of a particular ethnic group. At this point, we know they most likely came from Siberia or Eastern Asia, and we know something about what they were eating, which is something we can learn from coprolites. We're talking about human signature," he said.

"If you are looking for the first people in North America, you are going to have to step back more than 1,000 years beyond Clovis to find them," Jenkins said.

The Clovis culture has been dated to between 13,200 and 12,900 calendar years ago and is best known by the tools left behind.

Michael Waters, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University, said the find, along with indications of human presence at other locations, adds to the evidence for a pre-Clovis human presence in North America.

"The genetic evidence from the coprolites from Paisley Caves is also consistent with the current genetic data for the peopling of the Americas — that the earliest inhabitants of the Americas came from Northeast Asia," added Waters, who was not part of the research team.

Anthropologist Ripan Malhi of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said this data along with material from Alaska provide increasing "evidence that ancestors of Native Americans used a coastal route during the colonization of the Americas." Malhi was not part of the research team.

Jenkins said that discoveries like those in the Oregon caves "help us to reconstruct the American past."

"Our heritage is really important and it is important to the majority of the American public. If you don't know where you come from, it's hard to have a feeling of community, of participation."

To make sure the Oregon cave material hadn't been contaminated with modern DNA, the researchers tested more than 50 people who worked at the site. The DNA testing indicated that the feces belonged to Native Americans in two groups that can be traced to Siberia and East Asia.

In their paper the researchers dated the coprolites at 12,300 "carbon years" before the present. Prior to 3,000 years ago, carbon years differed from calendar years, resulting in the date of approximately 14,300 calendar years for the coprolites.

The research was funded by the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, University of Oregon; Association of Oregon Archaeologists and the Marie Curie Actions program.

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