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11 October 2009
Gault Site findings undermine Clovis First theory

The Gault Site is about 70 acres in a valley between Florence and Salado, about an hour from Waco (Texas, USA). It remains unknown to many Central Texans, though it's now open for tours and is the subject of a daylong event Thursday at McLennan Community College. But it's renowned among archaeologists worldwide as the continent's biggest trove of knowledge about the Clovis people, nomadic hunters who overran the Americas some 13,500 years ago. "It's such a well-kept secret," said Linda Pelon, an MCC anthropology instructor. "This is an internationally significant site that may help rewrite the story of the peopling of the Americas."
     The Gault Site is an ancient rock quarry that yielded a flintlike chert of such high quality that it's found in Paleolithic tools and weapons throughout the Midwest. It was inhabited off and on for thousands of years, even into Spanish colonial times, archaeologists say. It was plundered by fossil hunters through most of the 20th century. In the past two decades, the Gault Site has yielded some 600,000 Clovis-era artifacts, including etched rock plates that represent the only Paleolithic artwork yet discovered in the New World. There's also what appears to be a square stone foundation, which might be the earliest house ruins ever found in the Americas. And there is a range of tools used for tasks such as knapping chert, butchering animals or cutting grass.
     These finds are interesting in themselves, but combined with other finds at Gault, they undermine old assumptions that Clovis people were specialized mammoth hunters who swept across the New World and never stopped moving, Gault School archaeologist Michael Collins said. "When you find a site like Gault - it's Clovis, and the site is enormous, and the thickness of layers suggests they were there 400 years or so - you see they're not just rapidly moving across the landscape," Collins said. "They're staying there for days or weeks."
     This picture of settlement conflicts with the old textbook accounts. For more than half a century after Clovis remains were first identified and named in New Mexico in the 1930s, the accepted view was that Clovis people were the first American immigrants. According to the 'Clovis First' theory, hardy tribes of Asian hunters followed big game into the Americas about 13,500 years ago, when Ice Age glaciers supposedly began to melt enough to create an ice-free corridor. The hunters then spread like wildfire across the Americas. Using spears with leaf-shaped 'Clovis points,' they hunted mammoths and dozens of other large animals into extinction within a few hundred years.
     The Clovis First theory has been undermined in the past few decades by human artifacts dated more than 1,000 years before the supposed Clovis migration, found as farflung as Chile, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The latest evidence to debunk this theory may come from the Gault site. In the dig site now covered by the big white tent, archaeologists took a core sample in 2007 and found something startling: what appear to be manmade stone artifacts that differ from Clovis technology. That could mean Gault was inhabited some 14,500 years ago, Gault School officials said. "That would be the nail in the coffin of Clovis First," said Archaeologist Michael Collins has devoted his last 11 years to excavating the Gault Site.
     Today, the question of the first Americans is a wide-open debate, with scientists such as Collins suggesting Asian and even European colonization by boat between 15,000 and 24,000 years ago. "When I first started doubting Clovis First a long time ago, maybe 2 percent of professional archaeologists considered the possibility of an earlier date, Collins said. "Now, that number is probably 95 percent."

Source: Waco Tribune-Herald (10 October 2009)

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