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15 February 2009
Why 50,000 BP is a 'crazy date' for American site

Later this year, the first peer-reviewed report on the geostratigraphy of the Topper site in South Carolina (USA) will be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. The Topper site is a stratified deeply buried site on the Savannah River about fifty miles in from the Atlantic coast in South Carolina. Excavated for the past 20 years by Al Goodyear and the Allendale Paleoindian Expedition, Topper has confirmed archaic and paleoindian occupations, including a well-preserved Clovis. That in itself makes Topper remarkable—there are very few stratified Clovis sites in North America. But, below the Clovis site are two additional strata, one dated (now firmly) 15,000 RCYBP, and a second (now firmly) at >50,000 RCYBP. Both layers have similar lithic tools, what excavator Al Goodyear calls a smashed core and microlithic industry.
     Former archaeologist - and now freelance science writer - K. Kris Hirst said that 50,000 years is a 'completely crazy' date for human occupation of the Americas. "If Topper turns out to be 50,000 years old, then everything we understand about the world and its population will have to be re-addressed." she added. "The major question posed by a human occupation in North America 50,000 years ago is-who made it? So far, there is no evidence of Neanderthals in the Americas. So, what do we know of Homo sapiens 50,000 years ago? The earliest Homo sapiens appearing in Europe mark the Upper Paleolithic, about 40,000 years ago.
The earliest humans appear in Australia about 45,000 years ago. In fact, the oldest site known in Siberia is the Yana Rhinoceros Horn Site, some 27,000 years ago. This makes 50,000 years of human occupation in America very unlikely." said Ms Hirst.
     Archaeologist Theodore Schurr at University of Pennsylvania said "[Topper] poses some real problems trying to explain how you have people (arriving) in Central Asia almost at the same time as people in the Eastern United States. You almost have to hope for instantaneous expansion... We're talking about a very rapid movement of people around the globe." The authors of the Topper paper appearing in the JAS later this year, also have their doubts about the preclovis occupations, but not on the basis of the dates, which they prove pretty substantially are correct. According to Ms Hirst, they didn't think either of the stone tool assemblages from the preclovis levels were made by humans, but rather may have been created by freeze-thaw processes.
     Topper clearly has a fabulous Clovis site; and it also may have a preclovis site, dated about 15,000 years ago. Excavations are still ongoing, and there certainly may be more to report and eventually Ms Hirst and the other skeptics may be proved wrong about the +50,000 year occupation.

Source: Kris Hirst for About.com (14 February 2009)

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