Adovasio's 'First Americans': the politics of archaeology

On Books

August 18, 2002|By Richard M. Sudhalter | By Richard M. Sudhalter,Special to the Sun

The First Americans, by J.M. Adovasio with Jake Page. Random House. 352 pages. $25.95.

James M. Adovasio's subtitle for The First Americans is In Pursuit of Archaeology's Greatest Mystery. But he might more accurately have called it, "A broadside against those who seek to discredit my theories of American antiquity." His target, and context, is the so-called Clovis theory of how the Americas were first populated.

In brief, it holds that 1930s discoveries at Clovis, N.M., a small town near the Texas border, place the earliest North American dwellers here some 10,000-11,000 years ago. Arriving from Siberia via the 90-mile Bering land (or sea) bridge, they allegedly made their way south through an open corridor between two massive continental glaciers, and within several hundred years pushed on to the bottom of South America.

Clovis soon became archaeological gospel, even if little independent proof supported it and contrary evidence seemed to question it. Anyone claiming to have unearthed earlier remains risked doubt, derision and even public defamation. The Clovis Bar, as it came to be called, blocked many promising avenues of investigation.

Even today, with various sites throughout the Americas beginning to tell a different and more plausible tale, Clovis-first defense sputters on. Entire careers rest on its acceptance, after all, with tenured professorships, major grants and other benefits at stake. Meticulously, Adovasio traces what is now known, and guessed at, about the hemisphere's far distant past, exposing the weaknesses of Clovis theory.

At times his breezy prose, obviously intended to court readers intimidated by more rigorous scientific language, seems needlessly flippant: "Ice Age Florida, though a bit cooler and moister, would still have been a choice destination for your Pleistocene Christmas vacation," is a sample.

Strolling through the narrative are such imposing figures as Czech-born doctor-turned-anthropologist Ales Hrdlicka, who from his eminence at the Smithsonian Institution harshly restricted early 20th-century inquiry. Even more colorful is Richard "Scotty" MacNeish, an enthusiastic, pugnacious (as a youth he actually boxed professionally) Clovis opponent given to extravagant claims and self-promotion, but a dedicated and skilled archaeologist nevertheless.

As in most political adventure stories, Adovasio's tale has its heroes and villains, according to his own partialities and agendas. Among the bad guys is C. Vance Haynes, an especially stubborn Clovis-first advocate, here portrayed as a buffoon defending a blinkered view of antiquity against compelling contrary evidence.

With obvious relish, Adovasio tells of a blue-ribbon archaeological delegation, Haynes among them, visiting Thomas Dillehay's epochal pre-Clovis site at Monte Verde, in south central Chile. Try as he might, Haynes could not refute what Dillehay had found, says Adovasio. Undeterred, he and a handful of sympathizers kept trying to debunk Monte Verde with often wildly convoluted reasoning.

Adovasio's most spirited, focused writing comes in the section devoted to his Meadowcroft excavation in Pennsylvania, and the claims he makes for its pre-Clovis age. Independent assessments praise the care with which he's undertaken the 30-year dig and his scrupulous documentation along the way. There seems little reason to doubt the antiquity of much of what he's unearthed -- though, as has been remarked, it includes no human or animal remains.

His defense against those colleagues who question his reading of the evidence sounds much like the kind of ad hominem attack he professes to deplore. He derides one dissenter as "a card-carrying Clovis-firster," ridicules Haynes and dismisses various other critics as "gnats" and "professional naysayers." It's hard to avoid the impression that Adovasio is echoing his experiences when he tells readers that Dillehay "has been slandered and libeled by some colleagues here in America who went so far as to accuse him of faking evidence."

Significantly, Adovasio uses the term "here in America" to mean "here in the United States" -- opening him to charges of the same parochialism he frequently decries in colleagues. As Canadian and Latin American investigators often observe, not without a certain rancor, there is far more to the Western -- i.e. "American" -- hemisphere than the United States.

In sum, The First Americans is only secondarily a survey history of investigation into "America's Greatest Mystery." Primarily it is Adovasio's defense of his own acre of Pennsylvania turf, emphatic reiteration of his claims for its importance; as such it makes entertaining reading.

But a better idea of the big picture emerges from Canadian journalist Elaine Dewar's Bones: Discovering the First Americans, published in the United States earlier this year. Perhaps her status as an outsider -- i.e. a non-archaeologist -- allows Dewar to probe freely, unencumbered by any need to defend one hypothesis against another. It is that sense of disinterestedness that commends her book, and its absence that ultimately hobbles The First Americans.

Trumpeter and historian Richard M. Sudhalter's latest book, Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael, was published in March by Oxford University Press.

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