Peopling of the Americas

A Brief Introduction

In 1590 a Jesuit priest, José de Acosta, wrote Historia natural y moral de las Indias in which he hypothesized the peopling of the Americas by peoples from Asia. Over the years this was expanded until, in the twentieth century, it reached the form most of us are familiar with. The expanded version held that 13,500 years ago the sea was about 250 feet lower exposing a large land mass linking Siberia to North America. Highly nomadic big game hunters living in Asia followed the animal herds across this plain (called Beringia by scientists) to reach the New World. There they were confronted by the three-mile thick ice cap that still covered North America but there was an ice-free corridor heading south between two of them. The people followed this corridor down into North America and rapidly spread out. The stone tool technology that archaeologists named Clovis was thought to be that used by these earliest peoples.

There have always been some problems with this hypothesis. Acosta assumed that people walked to the New World because the peoples residing there during his time did not have the mariner’s compass, something he thought was essential for sea travel. Subsequent researchers focused on a land route. There is not a firm consensus on when the ice-free corridor was open and suitable for humans to travel through it. In addition the distribution of Clovis stone tools does not seem to fit the model, larger numbers are found in the American southeast than in the northern Plains.

Some researchers have long held doubts about this hypothesis. In 1975 a site was discovered in Southern Chile, Monte Verde, which was subsequently reliably dated to a generally accepted 14,500 years ago with occupation perhaps as early as 16,800 years ago. The people that had lived there had architecture and detailed knowledge of their surrounding environment more than 1,000 years before people were thought to have arrived in North America. Other finds at sites such as Meadowcroft Rockshelter (Pennsylvania), Cactus Hill (Virginia) and, more recently, Paisley Cave (Oregon) cast further doubts on the old paradigm. The evidence for humans at these sites dates between 17,000 and 14,300 years ago!

Currently paleoindian archaeology is in what is scientifically known as a “paradigm shift” or a change in our basic assumptions. Evidence found to date suggests that the old hypothesis is no longer any good but no general consensus has yet arisen on a new one. Archaeologists are looking for new data that could confirm one or a combination of hypotheses that are being proposed. One important possibility is that early peoples could have come by boat down one or both sea coasts. We know that people reached Australia by boat nearly 50,000 years ago and were sailing in the Pacific off of Japan by 30,000 years ago.

The Gault School of Archaeological Research is pursuing multiple lines of reasoning to get closer to the truth (see our current research page). At the Gault site we are working from what we know, the Clovis stone tool technology, to surmise what an earlier culture might look like. Ongoing research on the continental shelf examines what would have been prime territory for early settlers, the now-submerged coastline. Evidence is growing that water craft played a major role in the peopling of the Americas.