A newly excavated site in central Texas contains evidence that the first human settlers in the Lone Star state arrived more than 15,000 years ago. That's more than 2,000 years earlier than scientists originally thought.
The discovery should help end a controversy about whether a culture known as Clovis was the first to settle in the Americas. The site is on Buttermilk Creek, north of Austin, and there are plenty of good reasons why our ancient ancestors would have camped here.
"First off, you have a small spring-fed stream, which has water in it year-round, which is pretty good for Texas," says Michael Waters, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University. "You can go north to the Blackland Prairie, you can stay in the Edwards Plateau, you can go south and head out into the Gulf Coastal Plain, and there you have various animal and plant resources at your fingertips."
Another advantage is there's plenty of chert nearby — it's a kind of quartz you can use to make sharp blades. Waters knows early humans spent time at the spot because he's found more than 15,000 artifacts.
"Most of those artifacts are small flakes or chips," he says. "They're left behind from the making of stone tools and the resharpening of stone tools."
What makes these tools particularly interesting is they come from a layer of soil that's below the level where tools from another early human culture already had been found. Those tools were made by people know as Clovis.
"Clovis is typically dated now between about 13,100 and 12,800 years ago," he says. As they report in the journal Science, Waters and his colleagues believe the artifacts they've found were made by people who preceded the Clovis to Texas by more than 2,000 years. Waters says the newly discovered tools are smaller than the Clovis tools, suggesting they were made by a culture that liked to travel light.
'Another Nail In The Clovis Coffin'
Tom Dillehay, a professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University, says there's been a long running debate about whether Clovis were really the first American settlers, and he's not certain the findings from Buttermilk Creek will settle the issue.
"Whether or not they are pre-Clovis or early Clovis is somewhat, I think, questionable," he says. Dillehay says it will take more excavating and better dating techniques to settle that question.
But there are now several sites that point to human settlement in the Americas earlier than Clovis.
"This particular report that just appeared, if you want to put it that way, is just another nail in the Clovis coffin," says James Adovasio, the executive director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute. He's done his own excavating at a site near Buttermilk Creek.
While the first humans to claim real estate in North America probably weren't Clovis, he says, scientists just don't know who they were.
"Everything we're learning now — from genetics, from linguistic data, from geological data, from archaeological data — suggests that the peopling process is infinitely more complicated than we might have imagined 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago," he says.