Bones to Pick Archaeology: Scotty MacNeish, 78, says new evidence shows humans came to the New World more tahn 50,000 years ago. Other experts say 11,500.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ANDOVER, Mass. -- Richard Stockton MacNeish is a diminutive version of Indiana Jones, without the whip or pugilistic inclinations. He has an epic reputation in the field of archaeology. He is admired for his doggedness, his willingness to go anywhere no matter how rough the terrain. He began digging when he was in the eighth grade and hasn't stopped yet.

He is 78, stands about 5 feet 6 inches tall. A strange, bifurcated goatee decorates his chin, and there is a shimmering reddishness about his hair and face. He has spent, literally, more than 20 years in the field -- longer than any other archaeologist. He has published more than 400 books and articles. Despite two heart bypass operations, he retains the pounding mental metabolism of a furious shrew.

Scotty MacNeish knows that energy and impressive credentials will carry one only so far in the sometimes turbulent and truculent discipline of New World archaeology. It allows him to be heard but does not guarantee full acceptance. Only solid proof can do that.

This time, he is certain he's got the goods.

It all began one day in February 1991. He was having lunch when his dig supervisor brought him a small object. They were excavating two cliff caves near Orogrande, N.M. The young man had wrapped his find in foil. He held it gingerly as if it might explode.

It was the toe bone of a horse -- equus alaskae -- extinct for more than 10,400 years. It was found a meter deep in Pendejo Cave. That level also yielded charcoal subsequently carbon-dated at 25,000 years.

To MacNeish, head of the Andover Foundation for Archaeological Research, the charcoal meant people had been there when the horse was. That, in turn, meant he was drifting again toward the sort of controversy that had engulfed him 20 years earlier in Peru.

In Ayachucho, he had turned up artifacts which to him indicated human activity in the Andes as early as 30,000 years ago -- challenging the conventional wisdom of New World archaeology: that humans were not here before 11,500 years ago.

MacNeish published books about his find in Ayachucho. They were widely panned.

"There was a loud outcry against it," he says blandly. There nearly always is when somebody offers evidence of human presence in the New World that pre-dates the Clovis Culture, of about 11,500 years ago.

Clovis is a site in New Mexico where in 1933 a number of distinctive spear points were unearthed mingled with mammoth bones. These points were fashioned by a people who had poured across the land bridge from Siberia and populated the New World. They were the first, most anthropologists believe, a race of hunters so efficient that, according to one prominent geoscientist, they wiped out all the large extant animals -- the mammoths, mastodons, horses, camels and so on.

In archaeology, Clovis stands like a wall: Nobody was here before it; everybody came after. For some, Clovis is an unbreachable orthodoxy. Which is not to say it is not besieged. It is, constantly.

Human settlements in Chile going back nearly 13,000 years have been discovered -- as well as hints of human presence as early as 30,000 years.

A dig in Pedra Furada in Brazil produced artifacts alleged to be 30,000 to 50,000 years old. Objects found in Meadowcroft, Pa., carry pre-Clovis dates. Recently, the journal Science reported the discovery of a campsite in Brazil, near Monte Alegre on the Amazon, with artifacts about 11,200 years old.

Despite all this, the Clovis wall holds. Why?

So much of the evidence against it has been found wanting.

Since the 1960s, some 300 pre-Clovis sites have been put forth in North and South America. In nearly every case, their legitimacy was disproved. This has produced a hair-trigger skepticism among archaeologists.

Plenty of scars

Tom Dillehay, chairman of anthropology at the University of Kentucky, refers to all the pain and acrimony these claims have produced when he says: "A lot of scar tissue has been built up among North American archaeologists. They have been misled so many times they are skeptical of any claims that are made for pre-Clovis finds in North America."

Despite all the disillusionment, Dillehay, who excavated what he believes is a pre-Clovis site in Chile, urges more open-mindedness. He himself suffered from a reflexive rejection by his peers after he published his findings on the 13,000 year-old civilization at Monteverde.

Next month, the pressure against the Clovis wall will mount again as MacNeish and his colleagues reach the full range of interested professionals through the pages of American Antiquities. This is the foremost journal of American archaeology, published by the Society for American Archaeology.

The article on Pendejo Cave will refer to the following artifacts found there:

Human hairs 19,500 years old and others 12,300 to 12,500 years old;

A giant buffalo bone 55,000 years old showing signs of human workmanship;

A heel bone of a horse with a bone spear point in it, more than 36,000 years old;

A buffalo bone 30,000 years old with a flint point in it;

Buffalo bones with signs they were broken open and scraped ("To get the marrow out, great big juicy marrow," as MacNeish put it), 51,000 years old;

A selection of stone tools: scrapers, choppers (for softening meat), gravers (for marking bone), spear points;

An effigy of a bird, 13,000 years old; and

23 hearths at distinct levels which yield pieces of baked clay with skin prints on them.

The prints have been determined by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police laboratories to be human. A fingerprint expert at the University of Toronto verified them. Some prints are thought to be 36,000 years old; they were found at levels in the cave with other objects of that age.

Prints in clay

According to MacNeish, the early visitors to Pendejo Cave created hearths of stones, then lined them with clay. The prints were captured in the wet clay as it was pressed to the rock, then baked solid by the fires.

MacNeish and his party were the first to dig in Pendejo Cave, which sits above an arroyo.

"It is a place where people came in the fall to hunt," he said. "They stayed the season. This is a butchering site."

Speaking of those who occupied the cave over the millenniums, the archaeologist said: "I think these people came in from Asia some 60,000 to 77,000 years ago. They migrated down across the isthmus. They had choppers. They are like choppers found in Alaska and California and north east Asia."

MacNeish didn't set out to topple the Clovis wall. His life's quest is to find the source of agriculture.

He has traveled up, down, and across the Americas on what he once described as "the great corn hunt" -- from Peru, to Belize, to Mexico and back again. He began working in the Southwest to trace the development of agriculture there. He currently has digs in China, where he is trying to trace the origins of rice.

But whenever he puts a spade into the ground, it seems, he turns up artifacts and controversy in equal measure.

When he saw the horse bone that day five years ago, he knew almost at once what he was in for.

"We were up to our neck in paleoindian problems," he wrote, "and we were going to come under fire from the die-hard critics who believe the peopling of the Americas could not have been earlier than 12,000 BP [Before Present]."

As so he did. But at least he was not alone.

A converted skeptic

Dr. Donald Chrisman was the lead writer of the article in American Antiquities. It was first submitted 4 1/2 years ago, and rewritten three times.

He is very much the opposite of Scotty MacNeish. He's a year older, at 79, a tall man with gray, thinning hair and the soft-spoken mandarin mannerisms of the successful academic and experienced physician.

He is deliberate where MacNeish tends to be spontaneous, even rash. He is also an amateur: he has a master's degree in physical anthropology, recently acquired, and has been on a number of digs. But archaeology has never been his livelihood.

He is Scotty MacNeish's friend, though, and colleague on his New Mexico digs. And he brings a skill that has been more than rTC helpful in Pendejo Cave. Chrisman is an orthopedic surgeon; he knows bones. Most of the skin prints and bone fragments taken from Pendejo Cave are at his home in Northampton, Mass.

He recalls MacNeish's initial reaction to the horse bone: "I think he might have been of two minds about it. There was the background of Ayacucho," when his work was rejected. "But once confronted with it, he said we would do it. He said we had to expand our team. This time he said he intended to cover all the bases and deliver something people will respect."

Chrisman was trained in physical anthropology at the University of Massachusetts by people who favor the Clovis theory. He was naturally skeptical about the implication of the horse bone. Later, he was turned around by one he found himself at the cave.

"It was broken as if something had exploded on the inside," he said.

He took it to an orthopedist in El Paso, Texas, X-rayed it, and found a dense, pointed object inside the bone which looked like bone itself, but a piece worked into a point. Material in the layer where it was found carbon-dated at 36,000 years.

The Clovis orthodoxy

Most archaeologists and anthropologists still stand behind the Clovis wall. They are everywhere, but the intellectual headquarters of the orthodoxy is in the University of Arizona at Tucson. The leading scholar on the Clovis Culture, C. Vance Haynes, tenured in the Department of Anthropology, has an immense reputation.

He visited the dig at Pendejo Cave and came away unconvinced. In a brief telephone interview, Haynes declined to discuss the Pendejo findings or the article on them.

"I haven't read it," he said. "And when I get it I may not be able to read it right away. When I read it, I will write a commentary on it."

Paul Martin, of the university's department of geosciences, also visited the cave. He is the author of the "blitzkrieg" theory that alleges that the Clovis people, after arriving, annihilated all the large animals.

"Anybody is entitled to make a claim," he said, "and an archaeologist with MacNeish's experience and devotion is certainly entitled." But, he added, "I don't think he has convincing evidence of human presence before Clovis."

Martin has two principal lines of opposition.

First is the "unconventional" use of hand or finger prints to claim human presence. It has never been done before.

Second, he doubts the validity of the stone artifacts. Because the stone "tools" MacNeish found are so inferior to those unearthed in Europe and elsewhere at those dates, Martin thinks they are not tools at all, but just broken rocks and pebbles.

But MacNeish has had them analyzed for mineral content. The analysis, he says, shows that many of them originated many miles from the cave.

"These people carried a nice little tool kit with them," he says.

Skepticism suffuses everything about New World archaeology. Sometimes it comes down to two experts disagreeing with one another, and you do your best to make an intelligent choice.

Pendejo Cave, for instance, was declared by R. E. Taylor, head of anthropology at the University of California at Riverside, to be an excellent slice of time, "the longest sequence that has been documented in the New World," with levels piled more or less neatly one upon another.

Tom Stafford, a geologist at the University of Colorado, said the cave was "incredibly burrowed and mixed by pack rats," and because of that one could never be certain that an object found in one level really came from the time in pre-history the level represents.

Even those who believe pre-Clovis cultures existed are often cautious when making claims themselves, and tentative when supporting fellow believers.

James Adovasio, head of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute in Erie, Pa., excavated the pre-Clovis site at Meadowcroft. He thinks this reluctance, or timidity, exists because mistaken or fraudulent claims have singed many archaeologists' reputations. And the criticisms pre-Clovis claims invite sting for a long time.

20-year dispute

The controversies over Meadowcroft and Monteverde have continued for more than 20 years. Adovasio, who is sympathetic to Pendejo, believes MacNeish and his team are now entering the same kind of gantlet he and Dillehay have had to run.

Dillehay admits to skepticism when first considering Pendejo.

"But recently," he added, "in looking more carefully at the persistence of their work and possibility of lithic [stone] and bone artifacts, and the fact they found some human hairs, I find that when you take all this collectively, it could well be that Dr. MacNeish and his research team are on to something important."

He was also impressed by the rigor with which the team carried out the dig, he said, and the fact that he invited skeptics and supporters to visit the cave. Many took him up on it.

If the Clovis wall is to fall, it will probably not be a dramatic event, but a change of attitude effected glacially over the years as more and more sites revealing human occupation before 11,500 years ago are found and verified.

There will be no bang; science usually doesn't advance that way.

There will be no obvious implications for life as it is lived in the here and now.

On the surface, all the controversy seems only something that has to do with an academic discipline engaged in by quarrelsome men and women with shovels and trowels and boots -- if not whips.

But that is only how it appears. The relevance such developments as Pendejo Cave offers has a longer projection.

"Archaeology is an extension of history," said Adovasio. "It is knowing where we have been. You might have heard the expression that a population that denies its history has no history, and a population that has no history has no future.

"This knowledge helps us, the living, to understand that our problems are not something that developed last year, 10 years, 50 years ago, but go back at least 12,000 years and possibly more. Archaeology is about perspective."

Pub Date: 5/16/96

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