The early prehistory of the Americas and the human peopling of the Western Hemisphere. An overview of archaeological data, hypotheses and models Cover Image

The early prehistory of the Americas and the human peopling of the Western Hemisphere. An overview of archaeological data, hypotheses and models
The early prehistory of the Americas and the human peopling of the Western Hemisphere. An overview of archaeological data, hypotheses and models

Author(s): Ciprian Ardelean
Subject(s): Archaeology, Cultural history, Ethnohistory
Published by: Editura Renaissance
Keywords: prehistory;North America;South America;Mexico;Clovis

Summary/Abstract: This article is a general overview of early American archaeology, an updated synthesis of the most important archaeological data and radicoarbon dates concerning the oldest phases of human presence in the Americas, during the Terminal Pleistocene and the Early Holocene. It discusses – in a resumed manner - the most relevant hystoriographical and geographical contexts and academic debates, reviews the existing knowledge on archaeological cultures and sites, lithic technologies and cultural dynamics, and analyses the theories and models that pretend to describe and explain the complexity of phenomena laying at the base of the pristine peopling of the Western Hemisphere. This topic is not well represented in the European archaeological literature and, for that reason, this paper is meant for the Romania/European reader who wants to explore, at a general level, the most important “secrets” of such an exotic subject. The enigma of when people set foot on American lands, at some point during the terminal stages of the Ice Age, has not been solved yet. The chronologies of the earliest migrations, the origins of the first settlers, the demographic expansion models and the relationship between the earliest cultures still represent delicate issues that cause vivid controversies, clashes of paradigms and an immense input of energy and passions among scientists. Indepenedent of the absolute dates, the arrival of the first human groups to that part of the world occurred much later than in Europe, Asia or Australia, perhaps during or after the Late Glacial Maximum, most likely not long before 18,000 years ago, as far as one can tell today. The most common theories suggest terrestrial migration routes starting somewhere in Siberia and crossing the Bering Land Bridge into Alaska and Yukon. In spite of the wide opinios and the increasing genetic data in favour of this hypothesis, there is little archaeological data to support it. Alternative hypotheses were proposed during the last decades, which point at other possible places of origin, such as Western Europe, for the earliest peopling of North America, or the Pacific, for the case of South America. For more than half a century, the traditional archaeology promoted the paradigm known as the “Clovis-first” model, according to which the first American settlers were a sophisticated hunter-gatherer culture known as Clovis, well documented over most of the United States and dated back to at least 11,500 RCYBP. Today, this model is considered refuted and there is increasing evidence in support of “older-than-Clovis” populations, not necessarily related to the famous mammoth hunters, both in North and South America. Some intermediary regions, such as Mexico and Central America, still fail to produce a consistent archaeological record for the earliest periods. Many archaeologists claimed very old radiocarbon dates for the human presence in their respective sites; nevertheless, the widely accepted earliest discoveries do not go further than 15,000 years ago. The peopling of the Americas continues to be today, one century after its beginnings as an academic field of research, one of the most debated and controversial subjects in world archaeology.

  • Issue Year: 2014
  • Issue No: 11
  • Page Range: 33-95
  • Page Count: 63
  • Language: English