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Texas site yields 15,000-year-old evidence of earliest Americans

An archaeological site in Texas has yielded almost 16,000 pieces of evidence that people were present in the Americas about 2,500 years earlier than thought.

An archaeological site in Texas has yielded almost 16,000 pieces of evidence that people were present in the Americas about 2,500 years earlier than thought. A research team led by Texas A&M archaeologist Michael Waters reported in the March 25, 2011, issue of the journal Science that these tools and tool flakes from the Buttermilk Creek complex in Texas date back 15,500 years. The previous holders of the “earliest Americans” record were the Clovis people, whose artifacts date to about 13,000 years ago.

The Clovis people were named after the place where their handiwork first turned up, Clovis, New Mexico. They have always posed a problem for archaeologists trying to pinpoint the arrival of the earliest people in the Americas. The Clovis are supposed to have crossed from Asia to Alaska and the Americas via the now submerged Bering Land Bridge. Yet, no one can find evidence of the Clovis people in the part of Asia nearest Alaska, and Alaskan artifacts are too young to be Clovis.

Some of the artifacts from the Buttermilk Creek Complex, a pre-Clovis site. Courtesy of Michael Waters.

Some other sites in the Americas have hinted at an earlier, pre-Clovis people, but their evidence has been scanty. A mere 800 or so total artifacts have turned up at these sites all together. The Buttermilk Creek find, lying in a floodplain about 40 miles from the Texas capital of Austin, convinces powerfully with its 15,528 bits and pieces, a few dozen of them recognizable tools like knives and projectile points. The site’s official name is the Debra L. Friedkin site. A Clovis dig is ongoing nearby. In spite of the closeness of place, though, these two groups of people were separated in time by thousands of years.

How did the researchers know the age of the find? None of the material contains carbon, so carbon dating was not possible. Instead, they used a luminescence dating method that measures when the material was last exposed to light. Apparently, the crystals in some of these tools—and the people making and using them—last saw light at least 15,500 years ago.

Any archaeologists who had already come around to accepting that some other group beat the Clovis to the Americas may not be overwhelmed. But others who have remained on the fence might now find the almost 16,000 pieces left by pre-Clovis inhabitants of Buttermilk Creek, Texas 15,500 years ago to be a compelling argument for joining Michael Waters and his co-authors in setting back the human arrival clock in the Americas by about 2,500 years.

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