COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Scientists along Buttermilk Creek north of Austin, Texas, have found flint knife blades, chisels and other human artifacts lying in a soil layer nearly 16,000 years old – a discovery they say will rewrite a major chapter of ancient human history.
For one thing, it is now the oldest and arguably most credible site of human occupation in North or South America; but there’s more.
The discovery, by Texas A&M archaeologist Michael Waters and others, pushes back by 2,500 years the time when traditional science thought humans entered the New World from Siberia and founded the native peoples of North and South America.
“This discovery ought to be like a baseball bat to the side of the head,” to past theories, Waters said.
Other ancient sites in the Americas usually produce only handfuls of artifacts, in soils with ages that scientists argue about. This site contained tools in layer after layer of soils stacked like layer cake, the youngest from modern times, the oldest layer containing 15,000 artifacts dated to 15,500 years ago.
The discovery strengthens the case for two theories that traditional archaeologists laughed at not long ago – that the first Americans came earlier than 13,000 years ago, and that they didn’t walk over a land bridge into North America from Siberia, but came by skin boats at least 16,000 years ago (or long before) skirting along coastlines of the Aleutian Islands and then Alaska, Canada and America.
Waters believes they came by boat, hunting seals beside Ice Age glaciers a few miles at a time, surviving Ice Age weather, bringing families and pet dogs. He thinks the first colonies in America sprouted tens of thousands of years ago along the Columbia River basin between Washington and Oregon, a region he said archaeologists should re-explore with renewed vigor.
This story is important to all of us, he said; most Americans think Columbus should be taught in schools; but the first discovery of America was more heroic than his voyage, and far older. It’s a story that Waters and other scientists have spent decades trying to get right, including with dig sites in Kansas.
The first Americans, or Paleo Indians, were the first to explore the Rockies and Andes, the Mississippi, the Amazon. They were first to see giant elephants and bison roaming Ice Age Kansas. They dodged everything from giant dire wolves, giant short-faced bears, saber-toothed cats, and American lions.
“One thought that deeply touches my sense of wonder is that they didn’t really have to migrate once they got here,” Waters said. “Everywhere they would go, they’d find a land empty of people, with huge amounts of resources. And yet they migrated all the way to the tip of South America, and the only explanation is the relentless human spirit of adventure.”