The Great Paleolithic War: How Science Forged an Understanding of America's Ice Age Past

The Great Paleolithic War: How Science Forged an Understanding of America's Ice Age Past

by David J. Meltzer


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The Great Paleolithic War: How Science Forged an Understanding of America's Ice Age Past by David J. Meltzer

Following the discovery in Europe in the late 1850s that humanity had roots predating known history and reaching deep into the Pleistocene era, scientists wondered whether North American prehistory might be just as ancient. And why not? The geological strata seemed exactly analogous between America and Europe, which would lead one to believe that North American humanity ought to be as old as the European variety. This idea set off an eager race for evidence of the people who might have occupied North America during the Ice Age—a long, and, as it turned out, bitter and controversial search.
In The Great Paleolithic War, David J. Meltzer tells the story of a scientific quest that set off one of the longest-running feuds in the history of American anthropology, one so vicious at times that anthropologists were deliberately frightened away from investigating potential sites. Through his book, we come to understand how and why this controversy developed and stubbornly persisted for as long as it did; and how, in the process, it revolutionized American archaeology.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226293226
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/02/2015
Pages: 680
Sales rank: 1,288,417
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 10.20(h) x 1.90(d)

About the Author

David J. Meltzer is the Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory at Southern Methodist University, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He is the author of Folsom and First Peoples in a New World. He lives in Dallas.

Read an Excerpt

The Great Paleolithic War

How Science Forged an Understanding of America's Ice Age Past

By David J. Meltzer

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-29336-3


A Study in Controversy

Florida State Geologist Elias Sellards had watched for over a year as excavations in the rich fossil beds at Vero produced bones of mammoth, mastodon, sloth, tapir, horse, and other extinct Pleistocene animals. Then in October 1915 they yielded a nearly complete human skeleton; two more were found in the summer of 1916. Here at last were human traces in "undoubted Pleistocene deposits," prime evidence, he was sure, to resolve the long-standing dispute over human antiquity in America. Sellards fired off letters to the scientific Goliaths of his day, inviting them to Vero to examine the evidence: glacial geologist Thomas Chamberlin (of the University of Chicago and the United States Geological Survey [USGS] Glacial Division), vertebrate paleontologists Oliver Hay (Carnegie Institution of Washington), Samuel Williston (University of Chicago), and — tempting fate — the Smithsonian Institution's archaeologist William Henry Holmes and its physical anthropologist Aleš Hrdlicka.

Hrdlicka was happy to come down but warned Sellards that "the occurrence of human remains in ancient strata while a great incentive ... is, per se, not of course as yet a proof of the antiquity of the [human] remains." Privately, Hrdlicka sneered that "Mr. S. [Sellards] is so cocksure of his 'discovery' ... that the case inspires rather suspicion than confidence." Still, it was important to the "morale of the profession," as Chamberlin put it, that such finds be subject to critical examination. And so they were.

Hrdlicka went to Vero in late October 1916, and was joined there by geologists Rollin Chamberlin (also of the University of Chicago, substituting for his father Thomas) and T. Wayland Vaughan of the USGS, Yale University archaeologist George MacCurdy, and Hay. They met Sellards, examined the Vero deposits, and haggled over whether the human remains and those of the extinct mammals were associated. Hrdlicka had little to say, though Sellards guessed he would find objections. Sellards was right.

In Washington a week later Hrdlicka happily assured Holmes he would able to cast "the age and nature of the skeletal remains ... in the true light." Of course he would: Hrdlicka was rarely plagued by doubts. "When you came back to Hrdlicka," a longtime colleague observed (with little hint of affection), "he was always there, just where the Lord created him, on the rock of ultimate Hrdlickian knowledge."

Not everyone shared Hrdlicka's version of Vero's "true light." There was not then nor in the years to follow consensus on the age of its human remains. They were either from the Early or Middle Pleistocene (according to Hay and Sellards), the Historic era (Hrdlicka and Holmes), or the hundreds of thousands of years in between (MacCurdy and others). Even so, Holmes claimed the critics "called the matter into question so decidedly, that the world will not be in haste to accept [Sellards's] radical views."

The irreconcilability of interpretations badly strained relations among the participants and dissolved rapidly into interdisciplinary bickering among archaeologists, vertebrate paleontologists, and geologists. In 1918 Holmes insisted he would not "stand in the way of legitimate conclusions" in geology or paleontology, but imperiously dismissed Sellards's Vero work (and Hay's efforts to bolster its antiquity) as "illegitimate determinations [that] have been insinuating themselves into the sacred confines of science and history." He made no apology for his criticism, and in fact returned to that theme seven years later, publicly denouncing the Vero evidence as "not only inadequate but dangerous to the cause of science."

Sellards, new to the fierce controversy over human antiquity of which Holmes and Hrdlicka were hardened veterans, was hurt, embittered, and deeply humiliated. He soon left Florida for Texas, carrying with him the scars of Vero. More than a decade later and several years after a Pleistocene human antiquity was demonstrated at Folsom, New Mexico in 1927, Sellards gathered the nerve to ask Holmes his opinion about human antiquity in America in general and Vero in particular. Holmes, then 83 years old, dodged the question, saying "no trace whatever" remained of his earlier antagonism and he had "dropped the matter entirely."

That was not acceptable. Sellards did not want indifference: he wanted vindication. Over the next three decades, and long after his own retirement in 1945, Sellards continued to press the case for Vero and obsessively sought sites testifying to a great human antiquity. More "stones to heap on Hrdlicka's grave," his colleagues said as they watched and knowingly nodded their heads. In 1952, at the age of 77 and suffering with an abdominal hernia long overdue for surgery, Sellards returned to Vero to collect charcoal or bone suitable for the newly invented technique of radiocarbon dating. He would prove Vero was just as old as he had said it was. His longtime field assistant Glen Evans accompanied him, having left Texas with careful instructions from Sellards's physician about what to do if the hernia suddenly bulged. It did, and Sellards collapsed unconscious at the excavation. Evans propped him under the shade of a tree, treated him as best he could, and made plans to transport him to a hospital. But the moment Sellards regained consciousness he insisted on continuing to excavate. Nearly four decades after Vero, Sellards still desperately wanted to show that he and not his long-dead critics had been right all along.

Sellards was not the only casualty in the long and bitter dispute over human antiquity in America, though perhaps he was one of the more obsessed. And just as this controversy profoundly influenced the careers of the scores who participated in it, so too it forever changed North American archaeology and helped set the discipline's course into the twentieth century.

1.1 Beginning and ending

It took hardly any time at all. Only a few years after the discovery in Europe in the late 1850s that humanity had roots predating history and the Biblical chronicles and reaching deep into the Pleistocene came the suggestion that North American prehistory might be just as old. And why not? There seemed to be an "exact synchronism [of geological strata] between Europe and America," and so by extension there ought to be a "parallelism as to the antiquity of man." That triggered an eager search for traces of the people who may have occupied North America in the recesses of the Ice Age.

It quickly became obvious, however, that North America's archaeological record was not Europe's. Here caves and river valleys were not producing rich layers of primitive stone artifacts intermingled with the massive bones of extinct Ice Age animals. But perhaps there were other indications: in the 1870s Charles Abbott began finding stone artifacts along the banks of the Delaware River near his Trenton, New Jersey home. He pronounced these alike in form and evolutionary "grade" to those of the European Paleolithic (Stone Age), and reasoned that if these artifacts were similar in form they must be comparable in age. Certainly, the artifacts were distinct from those of the Lenni Lenape, the historically known tribe of the region, and were found in "gravels" that could be Pleistocene in age. Abbott was sure that "had the Delaware River been a European stream the implements found in its valley would have been accepted at once as evidence of the so-called Paleolithic man."

Abbott's apparent discovery of an "American Paleolithic" triggered a cascade of claims, and within the decade scattered reports of paleoliths came in from the East, Midwest, and Great Basin. Their precise age was difficult — impossible, really — to pin down. Yet, the specimens so readily mimicked European specimens of undeniable antiquity that it was thought they must be as old. "Comparison," Thomas Wilson famously asserted, was "as good a rule of evidence in archaeology as in law."

By 1889 the American Paleolithic was accepted fact. The idea that the earliest North Americans were here thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years ago when the continent's northern latitudes lay shrouded in glacial ice was triumphantly paraded in symposia, feature articles, and books. European savants praised Abbott as America's Boucher de Perthes, whose Somme River valley collections had tipped the balance on the question of the European Paleolithic. The only lingering issue was how much earlier the first peoples may have arrived in the New World. Some speculated America's prehistoric roots might reach into the Pliocene or even the Miocene.

Yet, scarcely a year later the American Paleolithic was under withering fire, led by William Henry Holmes of the Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology. His studies of stone tool manufacturing debris at the Piney Branch quarry site in Washington, DC, revealed a fatal flaw in the assumption that form corresponded to age. As he saw it, artifact production transformed rounded cobbles into long leaf-shaped bifaces through "successive degrees of elaboration." Drawing on biologist Ernst Haeckel's then-popular refrain that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," Holmes argued that if a stone tool was discarded or rejected early on in the manufacturing process (stone tool ontogeny), it would naturally resemble the "rude" and ancient stone tools of Paleolithic Europe (early stages of stone tool phylogeny), but of course that meant resemblance alone had no "chronologic[al] significance whatever."

Holmes used artifact form not to infer antiquity but to deny it. Demonstrating the Pleistocene age of archaeological remains, he insisted, was entirely a matter of geology. But then Holmes cynically assumed that any artifact found within unconsolidated, demonstrably glacial-age deposits was "an adventitious inclusion," effectively eliminating the possibility of a Pleistocene antiquity. And he was neither modest nor lacking in ambition. He declared his intent to "revolutionize" American archaeology, and deemed his Piney Branch study "one of the most important periods of [my] labors in the field of science, and one of the most important in the history of American archaeological research." He even insinuated that the reason American and European paleoliths looked alike was that many European specimens were themselves manufacturing rejects that prehistorians there had failed to recognize as such. Perhaps, as one onlooker tartly put it, "Boucher de Perthes may turn out to have been the Dr. Abbott of France."

Abbott and Holmes were both notoriously stubborn and uncompromising, and what started as a difference of opinion grew quickly into mistrust and then raced on to mutual loathing. They angrily debated one another on archaeological matters and called on their allies in geology to testify that the deposits in which those supposed paleoliths were found were indeed Pleistocene in age (George Frederick Wright in Abbott's corner), or most assuredly were not (Thomas Chamberlin seconding Holmes). The controversy that exploded that spring of 1890 ultimately went unresolved for nearly four decades, as archaeologists and nonarchaeologists alike sought evidence of a Pleistocene human antiquity.

The question being asked was straightforward enough: had people arrived in North America in Ice Age times? But easily asked was not easily answered. Throughout the dispute critics admitted the possibility that people were here during the Pleistocene: the great variety of Native American languages, cultures, and physical appearance certainly suggested as much. Of course, that was circumstantial evidence, and it rested heavily on the assumption that the "arrivals in America were of a single or homogeneous stock" and that vast time was required to produce that much diversity among its descendants. Until that assumption was demonstrated, Holmes argued, there was no reason to suppose it true, and equally plausible reasons to doubt it: one could as readily argue that early Americans descended from many different groups, for whom the passage through the "new and constantly changing conditions" of the New World further "greatly accelerated differentiation," rendering Native American diversity moot as a measure of antiquity.

Unlike scientific controversies in which a phenomenon is known to exist and dispute centers on, say, its causes or consequences, in this instance there was no guarantee the phenomenon even existed. Demonstrating that it did proved enormously challenging and at times extraordinarily complicated, for that required developing a deeper understanding of the archaeological record, laying secure chronological foundations (with the necessary, if not always welcome, help of geologists and vertebrate paleontologists), and building conceptual frameworks for making sense of the evidence. Looking back a half-century later, Emil Haury thought the Folsom discovery in 1927 finally brought the human antiquity controversy to an end because it provided "unequivocal evidence of man and extinct animals." That it did. But it was only possible to recognize Folsom for what it was because the decades of dispute leading up to that moment had closed critical conceptual gaps in archaeological, geological, and paleontological knowledge. Were it otherwise, the controversy would have been over in 1896 at the 12 Mile Creek site in Kansas (a site that gained little purchase at the time but in retrospect proved to be Pleistocene in age). Having the right site matters, of course, but even more so the ability to recognize it as such.

As it was, the effort to resolve the question ultimately involved dozens of sites and claims as well as scores of participants haggling over what those meant, and was a shape-shifting affair in its empirical content. It began in the 1870s with supposed American Paleolithic tools, but when those failed to prove the case attention turned to "primitive" human skeletal remains ostensibly reminiscent of earlier fossil humans such as Pithecanthropus or Neanderthals. When these too were deemed inadequate to the task, they were followed by claims of skeletal remains of anatomically modern humans from deposits with the bones of extinct Pleistocene animals. In the 1920s attention shifted once again, this time to sites in which stone artifacts were found in apparent association with those Ice Age animals. It was a process of adaptive response to what was at times intense scientific selective pressure in this environment of controversy.

Each of these types of evidence came with its own suite of analytical problems and interpretive baggage, though common to all were questions of a specimen's context or its association with geological time markers. These were questions often rendered difficult by the happenstance nature of discoveries, the degree of trust one placed on the finders' ability to report accurately what they had seen of the specimen while it was in situ, and the lack of agreed-upon rules for reading and transforming archaeological field data into evidence.

Then too there were methodological and theoretical concerns, which participants approached from very different perspectives. For some the Native Americans "were here and must be recognized in every theory, must be a factor in every conclusion." Unabashed uniformitarians they were, and they worked from the known (ethnographic present) to the unknown (archaeological past), an approach that demanded continuity between present and past and its corollary, a shallow past. Yet, those who sought a Pleistocene human presence, possibly of a distant unrelated people, "knew little about modern tribes and cared less." Native Americans were merely the latest in a parade of races that had migrated to the continent, making analogies to Indians and their quarry sites irrelevant. And what did a deep antiquity, or a shallow one for that matter, say about cultural evolutionary notions of historical progress? If American Indian prehistory began, as prehistory did in Europe, in Pleistocene times, why had Native Americans not fully transcended Lewis Henry Morgan's "savagery" stage and achieved civilization?


Excerpted from The Great Paleolithic War by David J. Meltzer. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


Roster of Individuals,
CHAPTER ONE A Study in Controversy,
CHAPTER TWO Setting the Stage,
CHAPTER THREE Establishing the American Paleolithic, 1872–1881,
CHAPTER FOUR The American Paleolithic Comes of Age, 1882–1889,
CHAPTER FIVE The Great Paleolithic War, 1890–1897,
CHAPTER SIX Cro-Magnons in Kansas, Neanderthals in Nebraska, 1899–1914,
CHAPTER SEVEN Dangerous to the Cause of Science, 1915–1925,
CHAPTER EIGHT In the Belly of the Beast, 1921–1928,
CHAPTER NINE Fast Forward, 1930–1941,
CHAPTER TEN Controversy and Its Resolution,
Appendix: Whatever became of ...?,

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