Artifact leads to questions in Va.

Ancient spear point from Cactus Hill complicates prehistory

June 27, 2000|By Thomas H. Maugh II | Thomas H. Maugh II,LOS ANGELES TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Most people probably wouldn't have noticed it, but farmer Harold Conover happened to see a stone spear point in the sand on a logging road near his farm in Carson, Va., in 1988.

That chance discovery triggered a decade-long excavation that eventually might resolve the ongoing, often bitter debate over when humans first migrated to North America.

The spear point itself wasn't unusually old, but it led archaeologists Joseph and Lynn McAvoy to a prehistoric campsite that might be as much as 17,000 years old -5,500 years older than the so-called Clovis sites thought to be the oldest on this continent.

The findings indicate that humans have lived here much longer than researchers previously believed and hint that their origins might be different from what had been believed.

Other archaeologists have made similar claims for a number of sites in both North and South America, some apparently dating as far back as 35,000 years. But the dating of those sites, as well as the validity of the artifacts found there, is questionable.

Data presented in April by Joseph McAvoy and a team of archaeologists at the Society for American Archaeology meeting in Philadelphia seem to have firmly established the age of the Virginia site, called Cactus Hill.

`This one looks real'

"This one looks real," McAvoy said, and others agree. "This is probably some of the oldest material in North America, if not the entire New World," said archaeologist Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

The Cactus Hill site is one of several that are overturning the long-reigning theory of how humans first came to the Americas. Archaeologists have always assumed that the first inhabitants walked across the Bering Strait to Alaska when ice covered its surface about 12,000 years ago.

Those first migrants moved south, expanding their presence throughout the continent within as few as 500 years. That population is termed "Clovis" because the first remnants of its existence - fluted spear points and other tools - were discovered at a site near Clovis, N.M. The distinctive Clovis spear points have since been found throughout the continent and, recently, in northeastern Asia as well, affirming the origin of these nomadic hunters.

But the story has been growing more complicated. Some archaeologists have identified other sites, such as the Meadowcroft rock shelter in Pennsylvania and the Topper site along the Savannah River in Georgia, that appear to be pre-Clovis. Their dates, however, have not been authenticated to everyone's satisfaction.

Others have found evidence that other populations might have migrated to the continent. Studies suggest that a seafaring population worked its way down the Pacific coast, establishing villages on land that is now submerged. Some archaeologists believe that the same process occurred along the East Coast as well.

Dates questionable

But the dates of such events are questionable, and that is why the Cactus Hill site has assumed such importance. The McAvoys and their colleagues have produced dating evidence that might well be irrefutable, thanks in part to Conover's discovery.

Skeptics scoffed at Joseph McAvoy's claim that the Cactus Hill spear points were possibly 17,000 years old.

Archaeologist David Meltzer of Southern Methodist University, for one, questions the fact that the two campsites discovered at Cactus Hill, separated in time by several thousand years, are separated in space by only 3 or 4 inches. "There should have been more soil-forming processes over that period," he said, so that the early site would be more deeply buried. McAvoy's findings, he said, "are impressive, but they don't quite seal the case for me."

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