In Cole Cinema on Thursday, Oct. 22, Professor James Adovasio presented his lecture, “Early Human Populations in the New World: A Biased Perspective,” during which he dispelled many of the misconceptions surrounding early human cultures in the New World.
In 1513 the explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean and confirmed to the European community that, “…the New World, was in fact new,” said Adovasio. But Balboa’s discovery raised the question of how the native populations moved from the Old World.
According to Adovasio, today, most of the debate centers around when the very first humans walked over the land connection between Russia and Alaska known as Beringia.
Charles Lyell published The Principles of Geology in 1830-3 and created a massive upheaval in humanity’s perception of the Earth’s age and its processes. Subsequent studies of glaciers confirmed that at some point in the distant past the world had undergone a massive Ice Age.
Visions of ancient men swathed in furs, traversing the frozen wastes, and hunting gigantic mammoths have come to dominate, and continue to dominate, our understanding of the past.
The evidence suggests otherwise. Contrary to popular opinion, the “Ice Age” possessed all four seasons and while winter lasted longer it was not freezing all year round.
Men have most often been the scholars of prehistory and the male-centric perspective heavily informed the theories. When the Clovis site was discovered in New Mexico in the 1930s, the evidence consisted mainly of stone spear points and other tools. Professor Adovasio suggested that the largely male academic community focused on that evidence to support a “man as hunter” scenario.
Under this concept, early human cultures colonized the New World in a fast-paced, aggressive expansion heavily reliant on hunting large game, such as woolly mammoths. These humans did not have permanent settlements and traveled frequently in search of meat, and their rapid continental expansion was therefore a by-product of hunting.
Professor Adovasio’s work presents an alternative view. He studies many artifacts such as cordage, baskets, and clothing which break down over time. Stone artifacts, due to their resilient composition, are more prevalent at early human sites. The lack of perishable materials at sites like Clovis led early scholars to conclude that humans relied on hunting to the exclusion of other activities.
Professor Adovasio does not approve of the “man as hunter” theory because it fails to include women, children, and the elderly. Men in fur, hunting large and dangerous animals with spears dominate the hunter scenario, which uses the Clovis evidence for much of its support. This picture demonstrates a close-minded attitude that hampers understanding of early human culture.
New evidence found at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter site supersedes the Clovis site by several thousand years. The Clovis sites have been widely accepted as the earliest examples of human habitation in the New World, starting around 11,500 years ago. Professor Adovasio’s team from the University of Pittsburgh investigated the Meadowcroft Rockshelter from 1973 to 1978, and found evidence of human habitation dating as early from 16,000 to 19,000 years ago.
Over 20,000 artifacts have been found, including various edible vegetation. Every evolutionary stage of corn has been found in the sediment layers, showing that Meadowcroft was used over a large span of time. The evidence suggests that humans were present in the Americas much earlier and settled the continents in a more gradual process based around scavenging large game and gathering edible vegetation, as opposed to the Clovis hunter theory.
Professor Adovasio said that he hoped that his lecture helped expand our understanding of the past. Whatever the field, it is our job to push the limits of knowledge, he said. We cannot be satisfied with the current state or theory, whether it is in biomechanics or archaeology. “When you stop adapting,” he said, “you stop living.”