Dig may alter ideas on humans, New World Remains in Chile suggest very early arrival there

February 11, 1997|By DALLAS MORNING NEWS

A Dallas-led team of archaeologists has concluded that humans lived in southern Chile 12,500 years ago -- more than 1,000 years earlier than most scientists had believed possible.

The finding suggests that researchers may have to radically revise their ideas of how humans migrated into the New World, the scientists say.

"This is probably the biggest change in North American archaeology in 50 years," said Alex Barker, curator of archaeology at the Dallas Museum of Natural History. Barker coordinated an expedition last month to a site known as Monte Verde, about 500 miles south of Santiago, Chile.

The results were announced yesterday at a news conference at the museum, which paid for the expedition with help from private and corporate sponsors.

"I feel very elated about all this," said Thomas Dillehay, a University of Kentucky archaeologist who excavated Monte Verde from 1977 to 1985.

A team of 10 archaeologists, including Barker and Dillehay, visited the site in early January. Their goal was to determine whether Monte Verde was older than any other known settlement in the Americas.

The other oldest confirmed sites of human habitation in the New World date to about 11,200 years ago. That's within the time period known as the "Clovis horizon," named after the distinctive fluted spearpoints found in Clovis, N.M.

Sites containing Clovis spearpoints are found across North America. For 60 years, archaeologists have believed that the sites recorded the spread of humans into the New World 11,200 years ago.

Most archaeologists have thought that humans migrated across a land bridge that connected Asia to Alaska 12,000 years ago, when sea levels were lower. From Alaska, humans took several hundred years to spread southward through the Americas.

The implications of the Monte Verde conclusions are profound, archaeologists say.

If humans were living at the southern end of Chile 12,500 years ago, then they certainly couldn't have gotten there by crossing the land bridge 12,000 years ago.

"You're not just 1,000 years older than Clovis sites, you're also 10,000 miles away from the land bridge," said David Meltzer, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist University.

The Monte Verde humans might have gotten there by some other route, such as by boat across the South Pacific -- although Meltzer said that scenario was unlikely. Or they may have migrated across the land bridge much earlier, on the order of 20,000 years ago, before the bridge was shut off by ice.

Humans also may have lived in villages near Monte Verde. But no other ancient sites are known in the area, possibly because no one has looked for the evidence, Dillehay said.

Monte Verde turned out to be unusual enough for people to accept it as a pre-Clovis site, Meltzer said.

What makes the site so spectacular is its detailed preservation of early human artifacts, from half-chewed leaves to a child's footprint. No other archaeological site in ancient America contains such well-preserved fragments of organic material. Those at Monte Verde were saved because a nearby creek backed up and buried the abandoned village in a peat bog for thousands of years. The peat preserved the site in great detail.

Pub Date: 2/11/97

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