Tests show humans inhabited Virginia 15,000 years ago; Archaeology: Charcoal, stone tools indicate early settlement at Cactus Hill; When, where and how people first came to the New World is the oldest mystery of American archaeology.


PHILADELPHIA -- New dating tests and other evidence are encouraging archaeologists to think that a campsite in southeastern Virginia was occupied by people more than 15,000 years ago and thus could contain the earliest known traces of human beings in North America.

The findings appear to lend further support to the growing belief that the New World was occupied thousands or tens of thousands of years earlier than once thought. When, where and how people first came to the New World is the oldest mystery of American archaeology.

In reports here at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, scientists described strong new evidence that they said confirmed an early age for campfire charcoal, stone tools and other remains at a site called Cactus Hills, 45 miles southeast of Richmond, Va. Other archaeologists said they were impressed by the research, but were reserving judgment pending further investigations at Cactus Hill and other sites in the eastern United States.

Joseph M. McAvoy, director of the Cactus Hill excavations, reported new radiocarbon tests showing human occupation at two distinct levels in the sandy soil at Cactus Hill. The upper level, about 2 feet deep, was dated at about 11,000 years ago. A few inches below, white-pine charcoal was dated at 15,000 years, but could be as old as 17,000.

What is especially remarkable, archaeologists said, is that the discovery appears to reveal two distinct cultures at the two levels.

The people who built campfires there 11,000 years ago had stone projectile points made in the style developed by what are known as the Clovis people. Similar stone weapons were first discovered in the 1930s near the town of Clovis, N.M., and have since been found at many sites dated at 10,000 to 11,200 years ago. For several decades, these people were assumed to be the founding population of today's American Indians.

But in 1997, after years of bitter dispute, leading archaeologists established that an apparently pre-Clovis people had been living as far south as Chile at least 12,500 years ago. Now, at Cactus Hill's lower level, archaeologists have found blade-type stone tools that appear to have been used for butchering meat and processing hides, but nothing closely resembling Clovis spear points.

"Welcome to the pre-Clovis world," said Dennis Stanford, an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institution, commenting on the mounting evidence of earlier American occupation. Other places where pre-Clovis people may have lived in the Eastern United States include the Meadowcroft rock shelter near Pittsburgh and the Topper site near the Savannah River in South Carolina.

McAvoy and other scientists who examined Cactus Hill said they had ruled out the possibility that contamination or shifting of deposits had given them false dates. An independent dating test produced similar ages and confirmed that the sands were not redeposited from younger levels into the deeper levels. Mineralized plant remains also supported the conclusion that people were living there 15,000 years ago.

"In all honesty, this is not even a close call," McAvoy said of the evidence for a pre-Clovis occupation.

Robson Bonnichsen, an archaeologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, said the "many lines of evidence" advanced by McAvoy's team were "really impressive."

"We must now take Cactus Hill seriously," he said.

The site is just south of the Nottoway River in Sussex County on land owned by the International Paper Corp. The first traces of the campsite were found in the 1980s. McAvoy began excavation there in 1993 with the support of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the National Geographic Society.

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