A new study, published on May 24 in Science Advances, has pushed back the date of the earliest settlement in the Americas by more than 200 years. The previous site, Monte Verde in Chile, at 14,800 years old, was considered by mainstream archaeology to have been the oldest site.
The Huaca Prieta archaeological site, in the Chicama Valley on the north coast of Peru, has long fascinated archaeologists. Composed of a massive man-made mound and other, smaller mounds, the site was first excavated by Junius Bird from the American Museum of Natural History in 1946. The arid climate lent itself to the preservation of organic matter and Bird uncovered the remnants of highly sophisticated textiles from the mound, believed to have been built around 7,500 years ago.
A new set of excavations has been underway at the site since 2007, led by Tom Dillehay, professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University and the lead archaeologist of the Monte Verde site. In 2016 the team unearthed a 6,000 year-old piece of fabric that retained traces of indigo dye, making it the earliest known use of indigo in the world, predating its use in ancient Egypt by 1,500 years.
The team continued digging through the mounds and discovered that even before the mounds were built, the area was used by humans. In addition to finding stone tools and other artifacts, the team found the remains of plants, such as avocados and peppers, that allowed them to date the site. In their report, entitled “Simple Technologies and Diverse Food Strategies of the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene at Huaca Prieta, Coastal Peru,” the team reported that “Radiocarbon ages indicate an intermittent human presence dated between ~15,000 and 8000 calendar years ago before the mound was built.” Furthermore, the authors found the “remains of avocado, bean, and possibly cultivated squash and chile pepper are also present, suggesting human transport and consumption,” and that “these findings raise questions about the pace of early human movement along some areas of the Pacific coast and the level of knowledge and technology required to exploit maritime and inland resources.”
The upper range of two pieces of wood charcoal from the site were dated to 15,155 and 15,182 years ago, and a bean seed to 15,217 years ago.
James M. Adovasio, an archaeologist at Florida Atlantic University and one of the co-authors of the study, noted that “Like so many of the materials that were excavated, even the baskets reflect a level of complexity that signals a more sophisticated society.” Today the site sits next to the ocean, but during the Ice Age, before the glaciers melted, the sea level was much lower and the shore was 10 miles away. The ocean was connected to the site by a fertile river valley that led to shallow wetlands and coastal lagoons where people could hunt and fish.
It is likely that human presence in the area is much older because the evidence suggests “that some early people had detailed knowledge of different maritime and occasionally terrestrial environments, which must have required a considerable amount of time to explore, observe, and experiment in a trial and error fashion.”
Even still, breaking the 15,000-year barrier is significant, because it has long been presumed that the massive ice caps made travel from Asia to the Americas almost impossible before 15,000 years ago. Indians would have had to have arrived tens of thousands of years earlier, or by a different route. Consequently every effort was made to discredit the previous work of Professor Dillehay and the age of the Monte Verde site, which at 14,800 years old gave ancient Indians only a few hundred years to supposedly travel from Asia to South America.
Not surprisingly, the report refutes the current archaeological view that Indian migrants traveled down the coast in hurry. Instead, the evidence “suggests that early human migration along some coastal areas such as resource-rich portions of the north coast of Peru may have been more exploratory and slower than previously thought.”
As Professor Dillehay noted, “It may be that we’ve captured, archaeologically, an instance where people just did not move quickly down the coastline but rather settled in for a good long while.” The Huaca Prieta site was not abandoned until about 3,800 years ago, and so the people stayed, on and off, for more than 11,000 years.
Other sites have been presented as being older than 15,000 years, but none have been accepted by mainstream archaeologists so far. Given the reputation of the team led by Dillehay and Adovasio, it is unlikely this site will be challenged, and so, slowly but surely, the date of human entry into the Americas is being pushed back deeper into the past.