Thursday, June 5, 2008

Discovery Points to Earlier American Habitation

In the world of archaeology, early is going backward by millennial leaps. We've learned in recent weeks of two notable discoveries placing events at least a thousand years earlier than had been previously thought.

In a dramatic find, an Oregon archaeologist discovered an area of a coastal cave that prehistoric people had used as … well, an outhouse. The fossilized feces contained 14,000-year-old human protein and DNA. The discovery means humans were in North America at least a thousand years before the so-called Clovis people. Scientists have dated the Clovis culture – named for the town in New Mexico where artifacts have been unearthed – at around 13,000 years ago.

Sites in Florida and Wisconsin also have prompted speculation that humans were in North America at periods earlier than Clovis. “Other pre-Clovis sites have been claimed, but no human DNA has been obtained, mostly because no human organic matter had been recovered,” says Dr. Eske Willerslev, who performed the DNA analysis on the Oregon discovery at the University of Copenhagen.

Scientists still assume these early humans were Asians who crossed the Bering land bridge and migrated southward along the Pacific coast and then spread inland.

In a second archaeological announcement, we learned that a 4,000-year-old gold necklace was unearthed in a Peruvian burial pit. The nine cylindrical beads are the oldest example of worked gold found in the Americas.

The beads, resting at the base of a skull in a grave, are provoking a rethinking of human society. Archeologists and historians have traditionally considered gold ornaments to signify a well-developed society capable of producing items of high status. This new finding, however, indicates that gold ornamentation existed in a society in the early stages of transitioning from hunter-gatherer to a more agrarian community, at least in the southern portion of the Americas.

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