130,000 year old “first Americans” disproven

Early in 2017 evidence of 130,000 year old Americans was found. This is more than 100,00 years older than the first Americans should be. So is it right?


Our species evolved in Africa but as you may have noticed, we didn’t stay there. Over the past 100,000 years, we’ve been expanding around the globe. One of the last stops on this grand voyage was America. The first Americans arrived via Beringia, around 15,000 years ago. Or did they?

Early in 2017, archaeologists found a 130,000-year-old site in California. Which is a fair bit older than the first Americans should be (130,000 being a larger number than 15,000). Obviously, this threatened to shake things up; making international news in the process.

A few months passed and the dust has settled. Other scientists have had time to pour over these findings. Their conclusions? The first Americans probably didn’t arrive so long ago. The evidence is ambiguous and the ancient date might be as reliable as we thought.

The migration of humans out of Africa. Probably right dates.

The Cerutti Mastodon

The discovery that’s causing all this fuss is a 50 square metre area near State Route 54 in San Diego. This nondescript spot was having a new sound barrier installed, but as excavation commenced, supervising archaeologists spotted something in the ground. This led to the discovery of more than 300 mastodon bone fragments, along with a handful of bits of rock, earning the locale the name “Cerutti Mastadon Site”. Or the less memorable, SDNHM locality 3767.

Bones and rocks in the ground in California

Crucially, the bones look like they’ve been hit with something, and the rocks appear to have been used to hit something.  This is classic evidence of hominin activity as we’re the only group that butchers meat with tools. Th/U dating of the Mastodon fragments revealed them to be 130,000 years old. Which, like I said earlier, is kind of a big deal for a site in California.

The archaeologists found no other evidence of human activity at the site. In fact, no other equally ancient activity has been found in America since. As such, all the evidence for early first Americans rests on these bones and rocks. So to confirm they were right, the discoverers smashed other bones with other rocks to see what the damage would look like. They found key similarities between their experiments and these ancient rocks.

Archaeologists smashing elephant bones to see what it looks like. Who said archaeology wasn’t fun.

Crucially, a powerful blow broke these large, thick bones. This is more force than any contemporary carnivore could produce. Trampling couldn’t do it either, given many of these fragments are fragile ribs that wouldn’t survive the process. The results seem solid. Humans were doing something in California more than 100,000 years earlier than they should have been.

Challenging ancient first Americans

So, all of this evidence looks fairly solid. How can people doubt it? Well, the critiques break down into three main areas. How sure can we be people did the damage? How sure can we be of the dates? And where’s the context?

Criticism of the dating comes with any new discovery, particularly when it’s controversial. However, I don’t think this critique has much merit. Several bones were dated with different techniques. Although most approaches failed (as the bones were too old) this thoroughness suggests the results are valid. However, the other two points have a bit more merit.

For instance, how can we be sure that humans really caused this damage? Sure, they did a bunch of experiments showing that humans could cause this damage. However, none of these tests featured natural rocks for comparison. They didn’t use a naturally damaged rock “placebo” as a control. As such, we can’t rule out many alternatives.  Plus, we have to remember that natural forces aren’t the only ones at work in this case. They found these fossils and bones at a construction site after all.

They didn’t experiment with naturally caused bone damage

Connected to this is the fact that the tools don’t really follow the pattern expected of human activity at this period. Whilst early hominins did use these basic hammers and anvils, that was closer to 3 million years ago. By 130,000 years ago people were using shaped stone tools. Although they may have supplemented these with simple, expedient objects, carefully designed tools were the bulk of their toolkit. Yet they didn’t find a single one at the site. Only the basic hammerstones.

The biggest flaw

This lack of archaeological context is, I think, the real reason for skepticism here. By 130,000 years ago hominins had a complex culture, including early signs of art. In Africa, they’ve left behind literally trillions of stone artefacts. 

Yet despite all of this complex culture, the only trace these first Americans left were a handful of hammers in a Californian ditch. No other bones or tools anywhere else in the continent. They left no genetic traces in subsequent populations. No cool paintings in any of the caves.

And it’s not like people haven’t been looking for this. There are more than 10,000 archaeologists working in America and the idea of ancient Americans has been investigated since the 60s. Surely we would have found something else.

oldest stone tools found

The Lomekwian. Possibly the most significant find in all of human history

After all, that’s the way it works with actual archaeological discoveries. In 2005 a similar situation played itself out. Bones with hominin-like damage was found in Gona, Ethiopia. This suggested Australopithecus did use stone tools. Around a decade later Australopithecine stone tools were actually found, confirming this theory. For context, scientists found the Cerutti site even earlier, in 1993. Yet there’s been no such follow-up.

So after more than 20 years of failure to find another case of these first Americans, I think we can finally move on. It’s still possible something else might turn up, but that possibility becomes increasingly remote with every year that passes without a discovery.

References

Braje, T.J., Dillehay, T.D., Erlandson, J.M., Fitzpatrick, S.M., Grayson, D.K., Holliday, V.T., Kelly, R.L., Klein, R.G., Meltzer, D.J. and Rick, T.C., 2017. Were Hominins in California∼ 130,000 Years Ago?. PaleoAmerica3(3), pp.200-202.

Haynes, G., 2017. The Cerutti Mastodon. PaleoAmerica3(3), pp.196-199.

Holen, S.R., Deméré, T.A., Fisher, D.C., Fullagar, R., Paces, J.B., Jefferson, G.T., Beeton, J.M., Cerutti, R.A., Rountrey, A.N., Vescera, L. and Holen, K.A., 2017. A 130,000-year-old archaeological site in southern California, USA. Nature544(7651), pp.479-483.

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14 thoughts on “130,000 year old “first Americans” disproven”

  1. clayton says:

    Bummer dude! I had high hopes of high strangeness! Oh well, I think there is still a little something odd there, in that something still may have used those stones to break those bones, even though there are no tell-tale signs that we have always used in the past to determine hominin activity. And I wouldn’t think it strange that some circumstance that we have no idea about could dictate that some hominin (Modern or Neanderthal or Denisovan or whatever the next one they find will named)of 130,000 yrs ago would stoop to using the most brute primitive, the most ancient technology in the hominin repertoire, in order to survive. And could it not be the random remnant of activity from some tiny band of humanity who arrived somehow onto the great Continent, whose activities barely left a mark? The last survivors of an earlier wave or pulse of migration, perhaps largely by boat? Who knows for sure? There, I feel better already! And thanks for the heads-up, Adam!

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Like I say, further findings could force re-evaluations of this idea. But they’ve had more than 20 years for those further findings to come forward, and we’ve heard nothing.

  2. GL Quinn says:

    I agree, absence of proof is not proof of absence, however unlikely it may seem. What is likely, though is that the actual very first individuals that crossed into the americas wether by foot or by boat left an extremely minuscule physical impression on the land. This impression in relation to the massive amount of land encompassing the search area leaves an infinitesimally small chance that it will ever be found, and that is if natural processes have not permanently erased the evidence already.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Africa is even bigger, yet we’ve still found several sites from this time period. I think it’s likely, if there was an occupation in the Americas, something would have turned up. But you’re right, we can’t really rule it out for sure. There’s always the chance for more data to change our conclusions, and that’s why I end with some caveats to my dismissal. But I still think it’s unlikely.

  3. Greg Little says:

    I assume that you reject the dating of Meadowcroft, Cactus Hill, Topper, and other sites in both North and South America that predate the 15,000-year-ago timeframe for the First Americans you cite? Do you also reject the geneticists’ studies for the older dates for mtDNA entry into the Americas?

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Whether I do or not is somewhat irrelevant here. There may be a case to be made for these early sites, but at most they’re going to push back the habitation of the Americas by a few thousand years This site purports to push it back by several orders of magnitude more. We can disagree over the 15,000 date whilst also agreeing its probably closer to that date than 130,000.

    2. RaceRealist says:

      Do you also reject the geneticists’ studies for the older dates for mtDNA entry into the Americas?

      Do you have a citation?

      1. Adam Benton says:

        I’m not that commenter, but I think he’s referring to the earlier discussions of mtDNA from the late 90s/early 00s that indicated an earlier migration than the archaeology alone would indicate. It was discussed in several papers over this period, with one of the more notable examples being:
        Bonatto, S.L. and Salzano, F.M., 1997. A single and early migration for the peopling of the Americas supported by mitochondrial DNA sequence data. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 94(5), pp.1866-1871.

  4. ape man says:

    These findings are real. It would be more far more odd if Homonids never made it to the Americas before twenty thousand years ago.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      The colonisation of America was hindered by the fact it’s quite hard to get to. The Beringia landbridge used to spread into the Americas was underwater for most of Homo sapiens history. The longest it was exposed coincides with the accepted age of the earliest American populations. People seem to have spread along it when they had the chance, the chance was just stolen from them by the sea for a good chunk of prehistory.

  5. RaceRealist says:

    What do you think of this article on the possibilities of Homo erectus making it to America?

    Dreier, Frederick G., (1986). Homo Erectus in America: Possibilities and problems. Lambda Alpha Journal of Man, v.17, no.1-2, 1985-1986. Citing: Gifford, E.W., (1926). California Anthropometry. University of California Publications in Archaeology and Ethnology.22:217-390

    I speculated that it could have been erectus in America with that finding, but now it doesn’t seem like it. The paper above is still interesting however.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      I mean, that paper is interesting as something of a time capsule. It’s chronologies are amusingly outdated and it’s fully embedded in the now disproven multiregional model of modern human origins; to the point it has H. erectus transitioning into H. sapiens in 5,000 years to make its chronology work. Compared to the work Greg was talking about in other comments (which happened only a decade later) it really hammers home how drastically things can change in palaeoanthropology.

  6. Brett Martin says:

    Hi Adam are you also dismissing, discrediting, ignoring the finds from Hueyatlaco by Virginia McIntyre and her team? Dates of 250,000 were obtained from tehpra dating.

    I also notice your still stuck with you out of Africa falsities, Are you also dismissing, discrediting ignoring the recent German finds of what are believed to be Australopithecus Teeth dating to almost 10 million years old?

    Yeah, I told ya so….

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Yes. Hueyatlaco has incredibly complex stratigraphy that makes dating very difficult. Numerous studies have found this problem, notably discovering that the layers date out of order (i.e. layers closer to the surface, which should be more recent, dating older than their underlying strata). It’s taken decades of research, but these issues are finally being worked around and real dates for the site in question are coming out. Spoiler, they’re not 250,000 years old.

      The German teeth are harder to examine as it’s a newer find without the decades of follow-up into it. However, it is worth noting that not everyone is even convinced that they’re ape teeth, let alone Australopithecus teeth.

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