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Pleistocene Pioneers

Douglas K. Charles

FIRST PEOPLES IN A NEW WORLD: Colonizing Ice Age America. David J. Meltzer. xviii + 446 pp. University of California Press, 2009. $29.95.

2010-05BREVCharlesFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageElucidating the original peopling of the New World is a mammoth undertaking, in more ways than one. David Meltzer weaves everything from the extinction of said beasts to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals into First Peoples in a New World. He explains how our understanding of the initial colonization of the Americas evolved as the field of prehistoric archaeology emerged and matured in the United States, and as new scientific methods such as radiocarbon dating were developed. The troubled history between Native Americans and Europeans is also a part of the story.

Terms such as New World and colonization are politically sensitive. Meltzer maintains that the use of the former term, which entered the European vocabulary immediately following Columbus’s first voyages, is justified by the fact that until people arrived from Asia thousands of years ago, no humans knew that this hemisphere, with its two large continents, existed. Similarly, the term colonization, often associated with the European expansion, has come to be used more neutrally in ecology to describe processes like the migration into and settling of North America that is the subject of this book. But colonization in the sense that has historically been associated with oppression does come into the story, as with the discovery of the 8,400-year-old skeleton of the “Kennewick Man” in Washington State. A coalition of tribes living in the region were adamant that these ancestral remains should be reburied in compliance with the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, whereas a group of archaeologists and biological anthropologists demanded the chance to study this “scientifically important” ancient skeleton; hence the involvement of the Ninth Circuit Court.

First Peoples in a New World, although cognizant of Native American perspectives, is primarily about the events and processes of the late Pleistocene and early Holocene occupation of the Americas as archaeologists have come to understand them. Sometime before 12,500 years ago, not long before agriculture was developed in the Near East, some of the people who had inhabited the other half of the world for well over 100,000 years made their way to a new hemisphere, where they found themselves in an unprecedented situation. The first Homo sapiens to appear in Africa had faced a world already inhabited by other hominins. But these Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers from Siberia now found stretching before them two continents encompassing arctic, temperate and equatorial regions, with no other humans in sight. They were commencing the greatest experiment ever in human adaptation.

Meltzer first details the climatic and environmental conditions at the end of the Pleistocene. He doesn’t merely summarize what we think we know; he also clearly and concisely describes the means by which that knowledge has been obtained, including Milankovitch cycles (oscillations in the Earth’s polar orientation), coring in ice in Greenland and Antarctica and in sediments in the sea floor, and the study of the geology of glaciers. A later chapter examines how questions regarding the timing and origin of the first peoples have been addressed using mitochondrial DNA, craniofacial anatomy and linguistics.

The peopling of the Americas and the identity of the Mound Builders were the central problems driving the formalization of American archaeology, and Meltzer, a historian of the discipline as well as a specialist on the early settlement of the Americas, provides a fascinating overview of the contentious debates concerning the antiquity of humans on these two continents. At the heart of the matter, of course, are the details of the colonization of the New World. When did the first humans arrive? What route—or routes—did they take? Was there more than one wave of settlers? What did they do when they got here?

Meltzer wisely devotes much space to the history and methods of archaeology in order to explain why we don’t yet have very precise answers to these questions. Radiocarbon dates are reasonably accurate, but to a historian, the ±25 or more years associated with two standard deviations around these estimates lacks precision (and that doesn’t include the need for calibration due to fluctuations in atmospheric levels of 14C). Taking sites with noncontroversial dates (controversy over dates did not end with definitive proof from the Folsom site in 1927 that people were here during the Pleistocene), the oldest site in the Americas is Monte Verde in Chile, dated to more than 14,500 years ago. Yet virtually everyone agrees that the earliest Americans came from somewhere in western Asia via Alaska. Where are the earlier sites in North America?

Perhaps they lie along the Pacific coast, submerged when sea levels rose at the end of the Ice Age. If so, the argument goes, the settlers probably followed the coast from Asia, along Beringia, and down the Alaskan and Northwest coasts. Unfortunately, archaeologists have yet to find the remains of any watercraft of this age. Alternatively, the colonizers may have walked across Beringia—which was the size of the continental United States, not a narrow walkway as the term Bering land bridge might suggest—paused in Alaska, and then headed south when an ice-free corridor opened along the east side of the Rocky Mountains between the retreating Cordilleran and Laurentide glaciers. There is again, however, no physical evidence for this.

The climatic and geological evidence indicates that the sea and land routes were probably not passable at the same time, so perhaps more than one wave of settlers came at different times by different routes. The linguistic and genetic data are not consistent with more than one population source in Asia (the exact location of that population is not known, however), but these data sets suggest earlier migration times that are not consistent with the environmental and archaeological data. The lack of definitive answers may frustrate the reader, but Meltzer’s critical evaluation of our current knowledge and how we arrived at this point marvelously illustrates archaeological practice. It also makes clear how much archaeologists still have to accomplish.

Meltzer examines the crucial question of what happened once the first populations arrived. What apparently didn’t happen was a mass slaughter of Pleistocene megafauna through human predation. The extinction of more than 40 species—including giant ground sloths and beavers, bison much larger than today’s, horses, camels, mammoths and mastodons—was instead primarily related to large-scale climate changes associated with the end of the Ice Age.

What did transpire when humans arrived is unclear. Archaeologists often find ethnographic or historical analogies useful, but we have no analogies for a fairly small population suddenly confronting two huge continents where no one has gone before. It has been suggested that archaeology shares much with science fiction, and Meltzer’s ruminations on the problems and possibilities facing Paleoindians, the term for the earliest people in North America, is an excellent example of merging known and unknown into a believable narrative, anchored in archaeological data and reasonably extrapolated through an understanding of human behavior.

First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America is a masterful exploration and encapsulation of the last two centuries of American archaeology and the first five millennia of the earliest Americans.

Douglas K. Charles is professor of anthropology and chair and director of collections of the archaeology program at Wesleyan University. He is coeditor with Robert M. Jeske of Theory, Method, and Practice in Modern Archaeology (Praeger, 2003) and coeditor with Jane E. Buikstra of Recreating Hopewell (University Press of Florida, 2006).

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