Settlement of the Americas: A New Prehistory

Settlement of the Americas: A New Prehistory

by Thomas D. Dillehay, Tom D. Dillehay

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Since 1977, archaeologist Tom Dillehay has been unearthing conclusive evidence of human habitation in the Americas at least 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, settling a bitter debate and demolishing the standard scientific account of the settlement of the Americas. The question of how people first came to the Americas is now thrown wide open: the best guess is that


Since 1977, archaeologist Tom Dillehay has been unearthing conclusive evidence of human habitation in the Americas at least 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, settling a bitter debate and demolishing the standard scientific account of the settlement of the Americas. The question of how people first came to the Americas is now thrown wide open: the best guess is that they arrived from a variety of places, at many different times and by many different routes. Dillehay describes who the earliest settlers are likely to have been, where they may have landed, how they dispersed across two continents, what their technology and folkways may have been like, and how they interacted with the famous Clovis culture once thought to represent the earliest settlers.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a gripping and groundbreaking new study, University of Kentucky anthropologist Dillehay (Monte Verde: A Late Pleistocene Settlement in Chile) pushes back by at least 1,000 years our estimates of when the New World was first settled. He challenges a long-held belief--that the first inhabitants of the Americas were the so-called Clovis people, a big-game-hunting culture who came through North America starting 11,200 years ago and reached South America even later. Drawing on his 20-plus years of research at Monte Verde, in Chile, he argues that South America was inhabited by 12,500 years ago. Indeed, he suggests, there were multiple pre-Clovis migrations to the Americas from several different points in Asia and possibly other parts of the world. Thus, the continent was a land of great cultural diversity at least 11,000 years ago. Dillehay also offers some evidence that these populations were physically as well as culturally diverse; he postulates that late Pleistocene America was the world's first real ethnic melting pot. The first Americans, he argues, do not fit into any of our contemporary categories of race or ethnicity. Writing in accessible but still scientifically rigorous prose, the anthropologist does a good job of supporting his controversial claims with solid radiocarbon dating and other evidence; his passion for and mastery of the topic make for an impressive narrative. Whether or not future scholarship confirms Dillehay's theories, this is a valuable book for anyone interested in archeology, early American settlements or the history of science. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
For 20 years, Dillehay, a professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, was the Principal Investigator of an archeological excavation at Monte Verde in Chile. Focusing primarily on the archeology of South America, the author deals with the whole continent, the Atlantic/Caribbean side as well as the Pacific side. He shows an excellent distribution of early people on the continent, mentioning sites that provide clues as to how people lived. Materials at the Monte Verde site, preserved beneath a bog, were proved by radiocarbon dating to be far older than most archeologists had thought possible. Though archeologists long thought that glaciers of the Ice Age would not have allowed southward movement until about 12,000 B.P. and South American habitation would have been hundreds of years more recent than that, Dillehay found evidence of human habitation dating back to 15,000 B.P, maybe even 25,000 B.P. He also found that there was "...a wide variety of cultural patterns and regional histories" in North America and South America, many of the differences related to climate and hunting patterns. There is a long tradition that the archeological records in North and South America duplicate each other, but this is almost certainly not true. "The distinction between the two continents is profound and complex." Interpretation of sites is often problematic. Could streams or animal digging, for example, have washed material from one cultural period into another? The answer to the question "Who were the first Americans?" does not seem to be as simple as we have long supposed it was. The first inhabitants of the Americas were Asians, but there might have been more variability amongthem than previously thought. Archeologists need some fresh thinking on how humans from Asia (and possibly Ice Age Europe) reached the shores of the American continents and how they traveled about and spread and lived in their various environments once they got here. There is evidence of "rapid cultural change" and room for a greater variation of interpretations of the evidence than has been considered orthodox in the archeological community. All this is hot stuff in an academic area beset by strong feelings. This makes it not really a book for the casual reader, although an interested person not trained in archeology will enjoy parts. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students, and adults. 2000, HarperCollins/Basic Books, 371p, illus, notes, index, 21cm, $18.00. Ages 17 to adult. Reviewer: Edna M. Boardman; Retired Lib. Media Spec. Minot, ND, May 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 3)
Library Journal
In 1997, a group of archaeologists ventured to Chile in order to validate or discredit work done by Dillehay (anthropology, Univ. of Kentucky) at a site known as Monte Verde. According to radiocarbon dates, artifacts found there were approximately 20,000 years old, which certainly did not fit the widely accepted Clovis model that dominated thought on the migration of people into the Americas. (The so-called Clovis people were said to have migrated across the Bering Strait no earlier than 12,000 B.C.E.) The experts ended up approving Dillehay's work, and the discipline of archaeology has never been the same. Here, Dillehay presents a multidisciplinary theory of the settlement of the Americas that gives context to his groundbreaking work in Chile. It is a seminal work in the field that is accessible to lay readers and should be purchased by every public and academic library in the country. Academic libraries supporting programs in archaeology, anthropology, American Indian studies, or history of the Americas should also consider purchasing Dillehay's Monte Verde: A Late Pleistocene Settlement in Chile. Vol. 2: The Archaeological Context and Interpretation (Smithsonian, 1997).--John R. Burch Jr., Cumberland Coll. Lib., Williamsburg, KY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
The Monte Verde site in southern Chile is widely accepted as the first proven pre-Clovis site, a human New World settlement that is at least 15,000 and perhaps as much as 30,000 years old. This work tours relevant sites, describes routes the first Americans might have taken to this hemisphere, and tells how they must have lived and how they faced the adventure of exploring a completely uninhabited continent. Includes b&w photos of sites and illustrations of artifacts. Dillehay teaches anthropology at the University of Kentucky-Lexington. He was the principal investigator at the Monte Verde site in Chile. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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The Settlement of the Americas

A New Prehistory
By Thomas D. Dillehay

Basic Books

Copyright © 2001 Thomas D. Dillehay
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0465076696

Chapter One

Setting the Stage

Whence have they come? Have they remained in the same state since the creation of the world? What could have tempted, or what change compelled, a tribe of men to leave the fine regions of the north ... to enter on one of the most inhospitable countries within the limits of the globe? Such and many other reflections must occupy the mind of every one who views one of these poor savages.

--Charles Darwin, on the people of Tierra del Fuego,

Sometime after the emergence of Homo sapiens in the Old World, the forebears of Native Americans entered the previously uninhabited New World, eventually making their way southward to the cold, barren landscape of Tierra del Fuego--one of the last places on earth reached by prehistoric humans. When did this happen? What kind of people were they, and where did they come from? For decades, archaeologists felt sure they knew the answers: The first Americans were skilled hunters and toolmakers who arrived from northeast Asia around 11,200 B.P., moved rapidly through the Western Hemisphere, and within a few centuries had traversed the New World, while driving to extinction such big-game animals as ground sloths, mammoths, mastodons, camels, and native horses. These migrating big-game hunters are known in scientific circles as the Clovis people, and the archaeological signatures they left behind are called the Clovis culture.

Epochal archaeological findings have recently overturned many aspects of this account, which is known as the Clovis theory. We now know that people were in the Americas long before 11,200 B.P., that they probably came several times from several parts of Asia, and they were not just big-game hunters. They had well-designed wood, bone, and stone technologies with which they exploited a wide range of foods, including plants, small game, and marine animals. Many of these new discoveries have taken place in South America. The first South Americans were clearly very different than their North American counterparts. Their culture was not uniform like Clovis; it was made up of a wide variety of regionally distinct cultures that predate Clovis times.

This book recounts the story of new scientific discoveries, conclusions, and controversies about the first Americans, with special emphasis given to the important South American archaeological evidence that recently has changed so many of our ideas. Particularly in the last twenty years, excavations in South America have raised exciting new ideas and questions about the first Native Americans. Much of this excitement revolves around several new conclusions spurred by the acceptance of the Monte Verde site. These are:

1. People were in South America by at least 12,500 years ago, implying that they must have been in North America by at least 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, if we accept migration into the Americas by way of land.

2. There were multiple early migrations into the Americas, probably from different points within Asia and possibly elsewhere.

3. Although late Pleistocene South American cultures are historically related to North American ones, they are also distinct, characterized by different technologies and generalized hunting and gathering lifeways.

4. Much cultural diversity existed throughout the Americas, but especially in South America, by 11,000 years ago. By that time the Americans had been in this hemisphere for some thousands of years, regional populations had grown geographically isolated, and they had rapidly and efficiently adapted to diverse environments.

5. There is some (though scant) evidence from human skeleton and genetic comparisons that regional populations were physically more different from one another than we once believed, suggesting not only early cultural but biological diversity. Both the cultural and biological records indicate that the first Americans were much more sophisticated and varied than we scientists had previously thought.

These conclusions add up to an entirely fresh view of the settlement of the New World--a world that archaeology has increasingly made a vital part of our common heritage. The story of this heritage begins with the question of when and where the first Americans found their way into this hemisphere.


The appearance of Ice Age people in the Americas has always been a mystery. At the turn of the twentieth century, Archbishop Usher's date of 4,004 B.C. for the creation of the earth was still largely accepted, and Native Americans were believed to have descended from either Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Japanese, Welsh, Irish, or from the ten lost tribes of Israel, or to have sailed to the Americas in historic times from the lost continents of Atlantis or Mu. We now know that the Native Americans are much older than any of these people or places, and we know that they probably migrated into the Americas from Asia. What we do not know is exactly when this migration occurred.

Indeed the question of when people first entered the Americas has produced much scholarly argument, in part because much more is at stake than a date. The date of entry has an important impact on our understanding of who the first Americans were, how they came to America, and how they adapted so efficiently to many different environments.

Since the findings of butchered mammoths at the Clovis site in New Mexico in the 1930s, most archaeologists have been convinced that the first Americans were nomadic hunters who moved rapidly to search for big game. The idea is that people equipped with the efficient Clovis spearpoints wandered from Siberia into Alaska, tracking animal herds as they moved across the open tundra of the Bering Strait (which was exposed by lowered sea levels). This initial migration probably took place sometime in the late Pleistocene (or Ice Age), which ended in different regions between 14,000 and 11,000 B.P. Eventually, the first Americans pursued other game southward until they reached temperate climates in the continental United States, and then they pushed even farther south to Tierra del Fuego. So goes the theory.

Under close inspection, however, the big-game Clovis theory has many problems. For instance, several recent excavations in various parts of the Americas show that early hunters also consumed less glamorous foods, such as turtles and other small game, aquatic plants, snails, insects, shellfish, and tubers. Also, evidence for the large numbers of herd animals needed to support the Clovis lifestyle is absent from many parts of the Americas, especially the forested regions of the eastern United States and Central America, as well as vast areas of South America. This lack of evidence does not mean that Clovis people were not hunters, but if they hunted in the forest, it would have taken more work.

Further, Clovis was a short-lived culture. All radiocarbon dates from Clovis sites in North America cluster tightly between 11,200 and 10,800 B.P. This tight span forces us to ask how humans could have reached the southern tip of South America by 11,000 B.P. How could people have populated an entire hemisphere in just 300 to 500 years--the time between the arrival in Beringia and the appearance of human-made artifacts in Tierra del Fuego? With the possible exception of the Arctic, there is no analogue anywhere in human history or prehistory for such rapid movement across such a vast and unknown region. Also, there are no clear archaeological traces of the Clovis culture in Alaska and Siberia. Where, then, did this culture originate? Were Clovis points perhaps invented in the lower forty-eight states? If so, then the Clovis theory does not even explain the peopling of North America. How, then, can it explain the first settlement of South America?

Still other lines of evidence have brought the Clovis theory into question. Linguists argue that modern North and South American indigenous languages probably evolved from a single ancestral tongue. But they also note that the languages of the north and the south differ greatly from one another and that it is hard to imagine how these differences could have evolved in just a few centuries. Led by Johanna Nichols, several historical linguists now claim that only a span of more than 30,000 years can explain the antiquity and diversity of New World languages as well as the differences between the languages of North America and South America. Similarly, the mitochondrial DNA of many present-day Native Americans differs so much from group to group that a single, relatively recent ancestral group seems unlikely. Many molecular anthropologists believe that the genetic diversity of New World peoples requires a human presence lasting more than 25,000 years. Others argue for a single arrival no earlier than 15,000 years ago.

So the consensus from many sources is that the Clovis model does not explain the peopling of the Americas. Although scholars are still far from broad agreement about the inadequacies of the Clovis theory or about an alternative to it, the broad strokes of a new picture of American origins are emerging. The evidence supporting this new picture comes from early sites all over the Americas but especially from sites in South America, including Monte Verde in Chile, Taima-Taima in Venezuela, Tequendama in Colombia, the Itaparica Phase sites in Brazil, and several coastal sites in northern Chile and southern Peru.

South America is very different archaeologically from North America because no single culture dominated the continent the way the Clovis culture, with its representative spearpoints, dominated North America. The first South Americans were not Clovis clones. In South America, the earliest technologies consisted of different kinds of stone tools, including a wide variety of spear-points, unifacial tools made of flakes, and sling stones. Furthermore, many areas in South America witnessed the development of broad hunter and gatherer diets before 11,000 B.P., a pattern usually thought to be associated with later Holocene or early Archaic cultures dated after 10,000 B.P. And big-game hunting was simply one of many different economic practices; it never achieved the importance it did in North America.

All of the South American sites mentioned above testify to varied patterns of technology and subsistence in different environments, including big-game hunting in grassy plains and savannas, generalized foraging in forests and parklands between at least 12,500 and 10,500 B.P., and active plant manipulation in some areas of South America by 10,000 B.P. (suggested by the presence of domesticates possibly as early as 9,000 to 8,000 B.P.).

Until recently, most specialists thought that it was only with the decline and extinction of large mammals at the end of the Pleistocene period and with the later increase of human populations that material cultures and subsistence patterns became more generalized. These changes were supposed to have occurred around 10,000 to 9,000 B.P., or at the beginning of the Holocene period. This time of generalized adaptation is called the Archaic period by American archaeologists, for whom the name denotes both a chronology and a way of life. Although the divide between the late Pleistocene and early Holocene period is essentially climatic (the retreat of those ice sheets), it is also conceived as a cultural watershed where the "Paleoindian lifeway"--specialized big-game hunting--gave way to the more generalized early Archaic hunting and gathering lifeway. Under the influence of this model, most work on the first inhabitants of South America has emphasized big-game hunting. Yet the evidence of many South American sites indicates that people in most areas of the continent combined what were probably sporadic large mammal kills with reliance on smaller game and plant resources.

Clearly the developmental sequence from big-game hunting in the late Pleistocene to diverse hunting and gathering in the early Holocene was not universal throughout South America, nor even throughout North America. A generalized, broad-spectrum economy existed at Monte Verde around 12,500 B.P. and in other areas by at least 11,000 B.P., although it differed from the classic and later Archaic period in that some people still hunted the soon-to-be-extinct big animals. This hunting, however, was only one activity among others. Specialized big-game hunting is evident only at a small handful of sites in South America.

Thus it is incorrect to refer to all early South American people as Paleoindians, a term best reserved for some North American groups. Yet because some early South Americans were hunting big animals that were not yet extinct, it is also incorrect to call them early Archaic people, a term more appropriately reserved for later cultures of the Holocene period. To avoid an overemphasis on the Paleoindian and Archaic lifestyles, I will call the South American late Pleistocene the proto-Archaic period, a term that reflects the time's highly diverse hunting and gathering economies and technologies.

This widespread cultural diversity evident in the archaeological record of South America probably had something to do with the relative lack of glaciers on the continent. Unlike North America, South American glaciers were confined to patchy high areas of the Andean mountains and to high latitudes near the southern tip of the continent. Immigrants coming to South America sometime before 13,000 years ago could have moved freely across the entire continent, and they probably settled early in many lush, temperate environments, a settlement pattern that spawned different hunter and gatherer adaptations and different regional cultures.

Between 12,500 and 10,500 B.P., South America saw many of the cultural developments typical of the late Pleistocene period elsewhere. People began to exploit coastal resources with a more sophisticated marine technology, concentrate their settlements in river valleys and deltas, and selectively use certain plants and animals. Later changes (between 10,500 and 9,000 B.P.) included most of those commonly considered typical of early Archaic economies (Mesolithic in the Old World)--more habitation sites, more use of plant foods that required care, more intensive exploitation of coastal resources, greater technological diversity, and the appearance of ritual practices and rock paintings. The first pulses of civilization in the form of permanently occupied sites, the appearance of architecture and art, and the use of plant and animal domesticates, may have occurred within just a few millennia after people first arrived in South America. As the last continent occupied by humans but one of the first sites of prehistoric civilization, South America offers an important study of rapid cultural changes. And once humans moved into the interior river corridors and coastal fringes of the continent, between 11,000 and 10,000 B.P., this development was rapid indeed.

What caused these sudden changes? Were they related to climatic shifts, internal developments within regional populations, the imitation of neighbors, or the arrival of new people on the scene? Or was the cause perhaps a combination of these factors, along with the exploitation of different foods and other resources in more lush environments? Or does the answer lie in the growing cultural experience, cognitive skill, social capacity, and constantly changing lifestyle of a population that had made a rapid migration down the entire length of the Western Hemisphere? The answers to these questions are crucial to our understanding of the first chapter of human history in the Americas and to the entire history of humankind.

The story of human movement into the Americas begins in the Old World. Although people have been moving from place to place for more than 2 million years, modern Homo sapiens, beginning around 100,000 years ago, were the first to explore large territories and adapt to all continents. This experience itself must have had a profound impact on modern humans and the divergence and variety of regional cultures they developed. Having changed more during the period shortly after 40,000 B.P. than during the previous several million years, and after spreading throughout the Old World, people eventually brought their remarkable innovations into Australia and the Americas, where, in late Pleistocene times, they produced a wide variety of cultural patterns and regional histories. Of the many different histories made by our human ancestors, those made by the people migrating into the Americas, especially South America, represent the least known. They were the last people on earth to successfully colonize a continent.

Although anatomically modern humans lived in Africa and the Near East more than 100,000 years ago, it was not until roughly 40,000 B.P. that there occurred a sudden explosion of new kinds of stone and bone tools, artwork, and elaborate burials. This transformation of anatomically modern humans into behaviorally modern people, seems to have happened simultaneously in Africa, Asia, and Europe. It is the most dramatic advance in human evolution since hominids began to walk on two legs more than 3.5 million years ago.

Forty thousand years ago, our ancestors occupied much of the Old World, including the cold tundras of Pleistocene Europe and Asia. The human brain was of modern size. These people used primitive tools, but these tools had persisted essentially without change for tens of thousands of years. People showed concern for their fellow humans by burying the dead and taking care of the handicapped and injured. Then long patterns of development that had begun 2 million years earlier began to flower, bringing language and communication, ritual and ideology, social organization, art and design, settlement and technology. Tools and methods began to vary from region to region and became rapidly more sophisticated. More implements were made from a greater variety of raw material than ever before. Bows, boats, buttons, fishhooks, lamps, needles, nets, spear-throwers, and many other items appear in the archaeological record for the first time. The dog was domesticated as a hunting companion and occasional source of food. With the dawning awareness of art and image-making, caves and artifacts were decorated with paintings, carvings, and engravings. Sites from this period are larger and more common than those from previous periods, suggesting larger social groups, more economic activity, and perhaps rapid population growth. From almost any perspective, this period represents a dramatic change in human behavior.

The conquest of new territory accelerated sharply at the same time. Having spread to North Africa and the Near East by at least 100,000 B.P., anatomically modern people advanced slowly across Europe and Asia until they reached China, Japan, and Australia around 40,000 B.P. In some areas the newcomers replaced, and in others interbred with, other humans such as the robustly built Neanderthals. At 40,000 B.P. the movement into uninhabited landscapes accelerated. These people explored new continents and brought with them the basic cultural foundations of early American culture.

The causes of this remarkable migration and cultural explosion are a mystery. Some anthropologists suggest that a change in the brains of modern humans improved their linguistic ability, which led to more sophisticated cultures. Others emphasize the rapid change in people's social and economic organization, perhaps caused by some fundamental behavioral change. Either way, demographic changes and possibly food shortages compelled some humans around the world to abandon one way of life for another, and so to invent new technologies and lifestyles.

Still other researchers argue that the crucial element may have been the human species' extreme sociability, which created an environment conducive to sophisticated tools, language, and artwork. Evidence of the extensive social relations among early Homo sapiens in Europe, for instance, is everywhere. Starting around 40,000 B.P., our ancestors left behind the remains of large campsites, suggesting that they occasionally gathered in large groups, possibly for ceremonial purposes. Richard Klein and others believe that the huge leap in the sophistication of hunting techniques and fishing technologies reveals the beginning of intense cooperation among group members. Discoveries of shell, bone, and flint hundreds of miles from their original sources indicate that modern humans had vast networks for exchanging goods.

Cognitive skills, belief systems, and art probably played key roles in the development of a complex network of groups after people initially moved into new environments. Their learning capacity was obviously crucial to the way they adapted to new environments and developed new cultural patterns. But the belief systems of groups were probably equally important. These systems probably preserved some degree of community, an acceptance of the social system, and hence a general social solidarity, particularly in times of duress. Communal beliefs may also have functioned to store and transmit ancient knowledge as groups split up and entered new worlds.


Excerpted from The Settlement of the Americas by Thomas D. Dillehay Copyright © 2001 by Thomas D. Dillehay. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

Brian Fagam
"Dillehay has written a masterly account of the first settlement of the Americas based on science from many disciplines. His book is a welcome dose of moderation in an academic minefield of passionate extremes. Up-to-date, exquisitely balanced and based on the latest research, this remarkable work is the best summary of the subject in a generation and can be strongly recommended to anyone interested in ancient America."
David Hurst Hurst Thomas
"For two centuries, the human settlement of the New World has been seen through North American-colored glasses. Tom Dillehay's authoritative, up-to-date synthesis should change all that. For the first time, specialists and general readers alike have access to the astonishingly rich and diverse archaeological evidence from Latin America. Our view of who the first Americans were is sure to be profoundly affected."

Meet the Author

Thomas D. Dillehay is Professor and Chairman of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. He is the author of the two-volume set Monte Verde: A Late Pleistocene Settlement, published by Smithsonian Institution Press in 1989 and 1996

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