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Paleos in Comparison

How Meadowcroft Rockshelter helps us rethink our image of the earliest Americans


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In 1952, visitors to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History got their first look at what was likely the largest image of the Ice Age most would ever see. The mural, titled "Pennsylvania 20,000 Years Ago," was an attractive autumnal scene featuring a bull mastodon in the middle ground. In the shadowy foreground crouched two figures: long-haired Paleolithic men, their muscular backs to the viewer, one clutching a spear in his right hand.

The mural was the work of the museum's chief staff artist, Ottmar F. von Fuehrer. In an article he wrote for the March 1952 Carnegie Magazine, the Austrian-born artist -- who began working at the museum in the 1920s, and who had painstakingly researched the anatomy of both extinct and contemporary pachyderms -- called the 17-by-24-foot mural "a realistic story-telling type of painting."

At the time of its creation, and for decades after, "Pennsylvania 20,000 Years Ago" also conformed with scientific opinion: Though many experts then would have disputed the date in the title as too early, humans and mastodons had indeed once inhabited the future commonwealth together.

Nearly a half-century after its creation, in 1998, the mural was destroyed, a victim of the removal of the much more famous, and much more lurid, Tyrannosaurus rex painting on its flip side, which had awed and misinformed generations of schoolchildren. (T. rex, scientists now agree, never stood upright as shown in the painting.) The scene depicted in "Pennsylvania 20,000 Years Ago" remained rather understated compared to many recreations of Ice Age life. But something had changed. In the eyes of many archaeologists, a couple decades of new findings and new thinking would have made the mural seem suspect, starting with its singular focus on a man-versus-mastodon world. Now everything was subject to new scrutiny, thanks in part, ironically enough, to discoveries at a Pennsylvania archaeological site just 30 miles away.

As a result of all these revisions, a strange thing happened to popular depictions of Ice Age humans: almost nothing.

True, a spate of newsmagazine articles and TV specials reported older dates for human habitation of the continent, and chronicled the pursuit of the mysterious, long-vanished people invariably, and somewhat proprietarily, referred to as "the first Americans." But popular portrayals of those people, like popular perception, remained stuck like bones in a tar pit: guys with spears stalking big elephants. Women sidelined, children scarce, and hardly anyone ever doing anything but making tools and killing things or eating them.

It's still so today, seven years after "Pennsylvania 20,000 Years Ago" vanished from the local cultural gene pool. For scientists, in other words, Ice Age humans aren't who they used to be. But if the rest of us don't know that yet, it says more about us than them.

Clan of the cave

Albert Miller was an amateur archaeologist, but he knew enough to wait. For years the Washington County farmer had eyed a sandstone overhang high on the banks of an Ohio River tributary named Cross Creek. His family had held title to the land since 1795, and the breezy, well-situated rockshelter seemed a likely spot for a Native American campsite. But Miller, fearing to upset the layers of sediment required to properly date any artifacts found there, resisted the compulsion to dig.

One day in 1967, Miller spotted a fresh groundhog hole at the site. He reached in and pulled out some freshwater mussel shells. Deeper down lay a flint knife. Now Miller knew, but he waited some more, until he could lure in a professional dig.

It took six years, but once things got underway, the Meadowcroft Rockshelter grabbed headlines pretty quickly for an archaeological site. The dig, conducted by a University of Pittsburgh team led by archaeologist James M. Adovasio, began unheralded in June 1973. By the following summer the site was threatening to set North American archaeology on its ear: Artifacts found there dated to a time that would roll back human presence in the eastern part of the continent by several millennia. A headline in The New York Times read, "Eureka! It's Pittsburgh Man."

The finds included tools made of stone, bone and wood, ceramics, more than a million animal bones and a similar number of plant remains from all historic eras and beyond. The oldest artifacts were dated at least as far back as 14,000 B.C. Meadowcroft, which small groups of travelers used as a late-summer and early-fall campsite on the way to or from the Ohio (some eight miles away), might be the oldest continually inhabited site in North America.

However cheerfully this news was received by the public, in archaeological circles it was a different story. Meadowcroft's oldest dates embroiled it in the most contentious debate in North American archaeology.

The thinking the finds challenged had germinated in the 1920s and '30s, with the discovery in New Mexico of large, well-crafted stone points and other bone and stone tools in association with the remains of mammoth and extinct bison. Using that era's best dating techniques -- analysis of layers of sediment -- the New Mexico finds proved that humans lived in North America during the Ice Age, which had ended about 10,000 years ago. The earliest (and largest) of these points were named after the little town they were found near: Clovis.

But "Clovis" became much more than a name for some finely chipped flint and the era it dated from. It soon stood for an entire culture postulated upon these artifacts. The points' continent-wide dispersal, plus their association with mammoth and bison remains, and the relatively brief span of several hundred years between their debut and disappearance in the archaeological record, led to a story: A small band of intrepid hunters -- perhaps fewer than 50 humans -- had tromped across the Bering Strait's famous Ice Age "land bridge" from Siberia to Alaska in search of game, forded a corridor between the two glaciers then enveloping much of North America, and burned like wildfire through a continent full of huge, well-fatted animals previously ignorant of human predation. Clovis people hunted so voraciously, theorized University Arizona archaeologist Paul Martin in 1967, that they were the primary cause of the mass extinction of great Ice Age mammals -- mammoths, giant ground sloths -- that occurred right around their arrival. And they bred so prolifically that they fully peopled two continents, from the Bering Strait to the tip of South America, in something like 700 years.

Abetted by dramatically imagined reconstructions of Paleolithic mammoth and bison hunts -- often featuring exciting illustrations of a handful of men confronting the monstrous beasts with rocks and spears -- the Clovis story is responsible for much of our image of what prehistoric people were all about. A 1979 National Geographic cover story begins, "They were predators supreme, these Ice Age hunters who exploded upon the New World 12,000 years ago ..." Though the article actually focuses on the people who might have come before Clovis, the illustrations included paintings captioned "The hunter's cry" and "cautious killers," both about mammoth hunts.

The Clovis fixation was understandable: For decades, even after the introduction in 1950 of radiocarbon dating, no one dug up anything older than 11,500 years ago, the era associated with the earliest Clovis artifact. (Incidentally, the latest calibrations add about 2,000 calendar years to all Ice Age radiocarbon dates, but for simplicity's sake most accounts stick with the "old" dates.)

If the "Clovis barrier" was North American archeology's equivalent of the four-minute mile, Meadowcroft might be its Roger Bannister. By the time the Meadowcroft dig began in 1973, a long series of claimants to smashing that wall had been dismissed as inauthentic. But Meadowcroft immediately gained respect. Adovasio's painstaking, state-of-the-art multidisciplinary approach -- made possible by generous funding from Pitt and benefactors including the National Geographic Foundation -- incorporated then-unusual computer databasing and fine-toothed excavation techniques. The dates from the site, and the discovery of stone tools older than Clovis, cast growing doubt on the theory known as Clovis First.

"That in a sense might have been the first chink in the wall," says David Meltzer, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas

The Meadowcroft dates, however, still aren't universally accepted. Clovis-firsters -- Adovasio calls them the "Clovis mafia" -- rallied to their theory's defense. Meadowcroft finds couldn't be Ice Age, they argued, because the plant and animal remains didn't reflect Ice Age flora and fauna. Other skeptics contended Meadowcroft's radiocarbon dates might be off due to contamination from nearby coal beds.

As detailed in his 2003 book The First Americans: In Pursuit of Archaeology's Greatest Mystery, the pugnacious Adovasio (who now heads Mercyhurst College's Archeological Institute, in Erie) strove to rebut critics. Plants and animals from Ice Age strata wouldn't reflect Ice Age tundra, he says, because the glaciers never got within 100 miles of Meadowcroft. The fact that the remains of extinct Ice Age "megafauna" are absent doesn't trouble him because "Who the hell is gonna haul a mammoth up the side of a hill?" And subsequent re-tests of samples from the site have convinced most critics that contamination wasn't a factor.

But any lingering doubts now matter less. That's because Meadowcroft soon had company. In 1977, a site at Monte Verde, in Chile, was dated at 12,500 years ago. Under a layer of peat that preserved even Ice Age wood and plant fibers, excavators found further evidence of other cultures prior to and contemporaneous with Clovis. The dates suggested that humans had reached even South America pre-Clovis. Moreover, evidence of wooden tools, fiber-based cordage and the consumption of plant foods -- even medicinal herbs -- suggested that the inhabitants of this semi-permanent site were far more culturally diverse than was assumed of Clovis people. They were apparently neither nomads nor big-game specialists.

Monte Verde, too, was greeted with skepticism. But in 1997 -- 20 years is a normal gestation period for new archaeological ideas -- a delegation of archaeologists, including key Clovis proponents, inspected the site's finds and the site itself and pronounced them authentic. A few of them later recanted. But in the intervening two decades, other sites had also claimed, to varying degrees of acceptance, to have broken the Clovis barrier.

Unquestionably, some of the people who made Clovis points had hunted elephants with spears. But if Clovis were no longer the first, only, or even most important New World Paleolithic culture, everything else was suddenly up for grabs. Linguists and geneticists began chiming in, with findings suggesting more than one wave of early settlers, and initial entries dating back 20,000 years or more.

By century's end, some were wondering whether those first colonists (whoever they were) might have arrived not via land bridge, but by boat, and settled the Pacific coasts of two continents before venturing inland. And most even questioned the feasibility of a culture dependent on killing big animals and breeding like crazy in the quest to conquer virgin lands.

Our conception of how Ice Age people made their living seems revealing, especially in the ways it changes (or doesn't) over time. Were they the bold, monocultural, male-centered, purely carnivorous, technologically superior, lusty and all-conquering bands favored by traditional Clovis theory and the popular imagination? Or were they, as newer scientific conjecture has it, a multicultural bunch, omnivorous, pragmatically gender-unbiased and technologically flexible -- survivors more than conquerors? Are there, perhaps, red-state and blue-state schools of archaeology?

Gathering hunters

At the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, since the removal of "Pennsylvania 20,000 Years Ago" there are no longer any depictions of people from the Ice Age or earlier. But the closest thing, the Polar World exhibit, centers on three life-sized figures of men hunting, including an Eskimo in a kayak preparing to harpoon a walrus. The only life-sized female figure is to the exhibit's rear, tucked into a replica igloo.

At least the Carnegie's polar tableaux are based on observations of a living culture. Depictions of Ice Age life often rely on imagined evidence. In her book Ancestral Images, British scholar Stephanie Moser explores how throughout history, renderings of prehistoric humans (and other "savages") have conformed to ready-made artistic archetypes: Paleolithic hunters posed to recall Hercules, for instance. Another student of such imagery, University of California at Santa Cruz anthropologist Diane Gifford-Gonzales, observes that the women in such artworks typically recall either a Madonna-with-child or a scullery maid -- the latter a "drudge-on-a-hide," scraping a length of animal skin on her hands and knees.

As in "Pennsylvania 20,000 Years Ago," the problem isn't just how women are portrayed; it's often that they're not portrayed at all. Adult males constituted roughly half of the figures in depictions of prehistoric life Gifford-Gonzales catalogued. Those men are never shown smiling, or touching another person. When women, children or older people are depicted in these wholly imagined scenarios, they're consigned to the margins or the background, doing something terribly uninteresting. The message, even if unintended, is clear: Only men count, and it's ever been so.

We implicitly congratulate ourselves on how far we've come from our "primitive" ancestors -- who by the way had evolved into anatomical moderns, right down to their brain size, well before reaching North America. But it seems that even sensitive 21st-century types are content to accept a Victorian ordering of Paleolithic gender roles. That image deceives, but it provides a sort of backdated validation, a prehistoric imprimatur, for today's male/female wage gap and the family-values rhetoric of Rick Santorum. And while the science has changed, the pictures haven't: Illustrators, diorama-builders and filmmakers keep harking to those archetypes, creating a cruder parallel history that is far more influential than the scientific thinking it nominally reflects.

Until quite recently, moreover, most archaeologists were themselves men; American University anthropologist Joan Gero says that while women are catching up overall, at prehistoric site digs men remain as overrepresented as they are in museum dioramas.

Clovis man, himself built heavily on conjecture, mirrors America's masculine self-image: a bold pioneer, technologically innovative, master of all he surveys, part of a band "undaunted by animals that towered over them," as the editors of Time-Life Books proudly assert in The First Americans (1992).

"A lot of science is what makes a good story," says Gero. "We've created this Paleo-American to so closely fit what we think of ourselves that it doesn't die easily, and it's too convenient for words. ... This going where no one had gone before. Not 'getting along with,' not 'living among,' but 'boldly going and coming to dominate the continent.'"

Recent portrayals of prehistoric humans are at least occasionally more nuanced than in the Clovis-first days. "The First Americans," a 1999 Newsweek cover article, opened with an image of two Paleo-American men standing in a marsh, fishing with a net. And one episode of the BBC's five-hour 2002 PBS documentary series Prehistoric America showed a man sewing clothing, depicted "early North Americans" using woven bags and baskets to harvest shellfish, and informed us that "human, like most other animals, will find food when they can." (Meadowcroft's Jim Adovasio is credited as a consultant on the episode.)

But such sophisticated efforts are typically overshadowed by more traditional iconography. Prehistoric America focuses on large extinct animals -- each episode begins with a digitally rendered mammoth in full trumpet -- but its most frequent image of humans shows three men with spears, hiking resolutely across tundra. When a mammoth hunt is depicted, its few moments are rendered in emphatic slow motion.

When it comes to mythologizing our forebears, ancestors on any continent will do. Once in the mid-'90s, working with National Geographic magazine on an article about the earliest textiles in central Europe, Adovasio argued with the editor over an illustration. The editor "insisted on showing the hunting of rabbits by guys in furs with mammoths in the background," says Adovasio.

"This," the editor told him, "is what people want to see."

Hunting gatherers

Adovasio once spoke with a British archaeologist who had studied the Willendorf Venus, the famed and sumptuously endowed stone figurine of Paleolithic antiquity. Adovasio asked whether the man had ever thought about the apparent knitted hat that covers most of the statue's head. "No," replied the scientist. "I never got past the breasts."

At 61, Adovasio -- standing outside the Rockshelter where he still leads tours every summer -- suggests more a stereotypically two-fisted bone-digger than a feminist champion. The silver-haired, bearded Youngstown native owns six motorcycles, and favors black T-shirts and a big silver belt buckle. But in archaeology, what you look for might be as important as what you find, and since his days as a University of Utah grad student, Adovasio has had an unusual specialty: baskets and other perishables, particularly textiles -- artifacts that don't survive very long in environments except the frozen, the bone-dry, or those sealed off by bogs or other oxygen-tight muck.

By the time he arrived at Meadowcraft, Adovasio, already among the world's experts in his specialty, oversaw the discovery of several shreds of woven birch bark including a charred basket fragment some 4,000 years old, perhaps the oldest perishable artifact ever found in the Eastern U.S. Deeper down, the team dug up a single strip of bark -- unwoven, but unmistakably cut by human hands. That piece, dated at some 15,000 years old, was perhaps the oldest evidence of fiber craft on the continent.

But even as Meadowcroft became a go-to site for articles and TV specials about the continent's earliest inhabitants (it was designated a National Historic Landmark this year), the basketry seldom warranted more than a line or two. The stone blades, one of which dated back 16,000 years, got more attention. The snub nicely symbolizes the frequent fate of prehistoric evidence that doesn't conform to the guys-with-spears model.

For very ancient times -- here, at least twice as long ago as the Egyptian pyramids -- archaeology boasts precious little physical evidence to begin with. One problem is that the only stuff that reliably survives time's predations is stone. Yet even in the Stone Age, stone was only a fraction of the material people used -- as little as 5 percent, Adovasio estimates (based on rare sites where perishables are better preserved). The rest -- bone, wood, hide, plant matter, even the furs we assume they wore -- disintegrates, and with it countless clues to a way of life that didn't revolve around the presumably male stone-chippers and spear-hurlers. "We have so overestimated the importance of stone because it's preserved, and therefore the importance of men," says Adovasio.

Meanwhile, a study by Southern Methodist's David Meltzer and California State University's Michael D. Cannon, for instance, found that most major North American prehistoric archaeological sites were found simply because someone spied mammoth or bison bones. And compared to sites discovered for other reasons, the big-bone sites are more likely to be dominated by megafaunal remains than by evidence of other kind of subsistence activities

Moreover, archaeologists who find stone points and mammoth bones together might mistakenly assume the former were used to kill the latter. Clovis proponents have even argued that Clovis-era people must have hunted mammoth continentwide -- even while acknowledging that elephant remains and man-made artifacts are found together nowhere east of the Mississippi. North America contains only about a dozen sites where people clearly hunted elephants, Meltzer and Cannon contend. The rest of the sites could represent places where humans scavenged animals that were already dead; indeed, Meltzer suggests that wear patterns on some Clovis blades indicate they were used as all-purpose knives, not just spear points.

"The old Clovis stereotype is cheating, in that it doesn't require us to think very hard about how these guys got across the continent," says Meltzer. What would have motivated small bands of people to move from one vastly different environment to another? What resources would they have been most likely to exploit while they were there? "Collecting wild plums as you're walking along is a lot safer than going after a matriarch [mammoth] cow," says Meltzer. On re-evaluation, sites long regarded as hunting camps for men have yielded evidence of longer-term, more diversified occupation -- hearths, bone needles and more, suggesting the presence of women and children.

An emerging consensus holds that while some Paleo-Americans, such as those on the Great Plains, might have leaned on the biggest of big game, those in different environments ate differently: At Pennsylvania's Shawnee-Minisink site, near the Delaware River Gap, for instance, there are Clovis-era fish and nut remains. And it's undisputed that after the extinction of the Ice Age's largest game animals (which many now attribute not to human predation, but to climate change) almost every prehistoric North American had to turn more to small game and plant foods. Thus even if the Clovis way of life did hold sway, it was for only a brief period. Yet its imagined culture remains our template for Ice Age life.

Thanks to the spread of techniques such as fine-screening and flotation for tiny remains and artifacts such as seeds, understanding of the "gatherer" half of the hunter-gatherer label has grown. So, perhaps not coincidentally, has "gender archaeology," the study of gender roles in history. The more we understand about technologies traditionally associated with women, such as basket-weaving and clothing manufacture, for instance, the more we understand about the women who wielded them -- and their societies. Some speculate, for example, that Ice Age camps were located to take advantage of local foraging resources, such as plant foods, rather than the big game that men roamed afield to stalk. So perhaps women selected those sites. In the words of one gender archaeology text, it's the idea that "[d]igging sticks were just as important as throwing sticks."

All that's not to say, however, that Paleo folk even conceived of gender as we do, or assigned chores accordingly. Women might have hunted and fished, for example; men might have sewn and gathered. "Strict gender segregation of work is a product of large populations and specialized work," says Gero. "Where populations are small and work is large, people do it together. People can't afford to have the attitude of 'No, no, that's not my work.'"

Adovasio, who's writing a book on gender and prehistory tentatively titled The Invisible Sex, says archaeologists need to get better at searching for new material and understanding what it means. He refers to a dig he's consulting on in Eastern Europe. "When you find woven fabrics 27,000 years ago in the Czech Republic, it's a big deal," he says, "because it fundamentally alters what we think they're doing. But if you're a stick, spear and mammoth guy -- 'Oh, that's nice that they're making shirts.' Well, no, you post, it's a lot more than making shirts. ... Anybody that can make a fancy shirt can make a hunting net. Anybody that can make a hunting net can acquire vast amounts of food resources without confrontational hunting. Why in the world would you stand in front of a mammoth with a spear when you could collect 5,000 rabbits in a rabbit net?

"When you recover information suggesting different kinds of lifeways," he concludes, "you're fundamentally altering the way people look at the past."

Beyond the Paleos

Archaeologists are a talkative bunch. But ask them what bearing their work has on the present and many have little to say. "Archaeology doesn't necessarily have a lot of utilitarian value," quips Southern Methodist's Meltzer. "I know more about 10 or 12 thousand years ago than I know about today."

But to look into humanity's arrival in North America is also inevitably to look at ourselves. For instance, while only Native Americans can plausibly claim Ice Age Americans as ancestors, people seem endlessly engaged by the topic. In an essay in the July Harper's, writer Jack Hitt explored the debate over the ethnicity of the first Americans: Whether they were really Siberian forebears of Native Americans, or some other group entirely (perhaps even Europeans), has generated considerable heat, and racism both coded and uncoded, inside archaeology and out.

For archaeologists studying how Ice Age humans survived, of course, it's all about the science. Unless you're talking about the other guy.

"There were people who just refuse to believe that Clovis were big-game hunters," says University of Arkansas archaeologist Juliet Morrow, who remains unconvinced by claims of pre-Clovis finds and admits that colleagues view her as "an old fuddy-duddy" (she's about 40). "I think it's all part of the political correctness, the 'Oh, let's be civilized.'"

Adovasio, meanwhile, still takes shots at Clovis-firsters. "How you look at the past for most people is a function of collective mindset, and if you have a constrained view of the past you may have a constrained view of the present, and a constrained view of the future," he says.

Given especially that North American archaeology has uncovered scant evidence of prehistoric art, all renderings of prehistoric humanity are imaginative interpretations. And even archaeologists who hew to some variation of the Clovis model tend to agree that popular imagery needs a makeover. "I think people rely on archaeologists to paint the picture, and we're not doing a very good job of that," says Morrow.

So why not new pictures? Not necessarily of women hunting mammoths, but just some variety? Show not only men, but families, including pregnant women. Show children and elders contributing. Men smiling. Show people in the summer -- an excuse to shed the fur. Show them just talking or, if they're working on tools, at least let it not be stone for a change. Show women gathering roots, or snaring rabbits -- anything besides scraping hides or carrying babies.

Or maybe show something like the mannequin Adovasio saw in a museum in the Czech Republic, the sort of thing he'd like to see more of here and expects to, eventually. "It's a male, an upper Paleolithic male, no spear, wearing garments made out of plant material, carrying a purse made out of plant material, and it's jarring to the eye," he says. "And it was meant to be jarring. Here you have a museum in a rural area that more Czech farmers are seeing than North American sophisticates, but it's that kind of thing that jars you into saying, 'Oh, all right, they're doing other stuff.'"


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