Who killed the mastodon? Now we know, as we had long suspected, that the beast probably didn't die of natural causes. Somebody stuck a spear into it. The bone point remained in its ribs. For 13,800 years.
The basic story has been well-covered recently: In 1977, Emanuel Manis was using a backhoe to dig a pond on his property in Sequim, when he unearthed the remains of a mastodon, one of the big, hairy elephant-like critters that inhabited much of North America during the Ice Age. Manis called in Washington State University archaeologists to look at the remains. WSU's Carl Gustafson found a piece of sharpened bone embedded in one of the mastodon's ribs. He concluded that the bone was a projectile point, that some early hunter had used it to do the mastodon in, and that this had all happened some 13,800 years ago.
At the time of Manis's find, people figured that the continent's earliest inhabitants had belonged to the Clovis culture, whose craftsmen made fluted stone points. Clovis people had obviously killed and butchered mastodons and mammoths — their distinctive points have been found with the bones — and they had obviously lived all over what is now the United States. But they had appeared in America — which is to say, their earliest spear points had been dated to — only — only! — 13,000 years ago. When Manis scooped those dark, curving tusks out of the mud, the archaeological mantra was "Clovis first."
If Gustafson was right that the mastodon had been killed by people rather than dying of other causes, Clovis wasn't first. In fact, someone had beaten the Clovis culture to the Northwest by 800 years.
Until the latest developments, most scientists were skeptical that there were any peoples in the area before the Clovis culture. "That Clovis-first model really took root into the psyche of archaeologists," says archaeologist Michael Waters. The mastodon tusks and bones were displayed at the Museum & Arts Center in Sequim. Gustafson retired. The Manis find became a kind of footnote to regional history.
Waters, who directs the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University, and colleagues took a new look at the evidence. They ran the rib through a powerful CAT scan. They sampled DNA from both the rib and the point embedded in it. They dated protein from the rib. Their conclusion: Gustafson was right all along. Someone really had speared the mastodon. And it really had happened 13,800 years old.
That conclusion seems less revolutionary now than it did in 1977. Evidence of pre-Clovis people had been around since the 1950s and '60s, Waters explains, but most archaeologists didn't want to believe it, and they always found a plausible reason not to. Then came Monte Verde: Papers published in the late 1980s suggested that people had lived at a site in Chile at least 14,800 years ago.
"Monte Verde was really the big turning point for a lot of us," Waters says. "But it wasn't the turning point for a lot of people." After all, "it was only one site." But Monte Verde no longer stands alone.
Archaeologists keep finding new evidence of pre-Clovis people. Waters himself has excavated a site in central Texas that may date back 15,500 years. There's another pre-Clovis site in Wisconsin, others in Pennsylvania, Virginia and elsewhere, and one in the Paisley caves of central Oregon where coprolites — mummified turds — have yielded human DNA dating back 14,500 years, the oldest human DNA found on this continent. Earlier this year, archaeologists identified delicate points found on California's Channel Islands as artifacts of a non-Clovis people who may have both preceded and coexisted with Clovis culture. "Clovis first" seems on its way to join such historic slogans as "Nixon's the one" and "all the way with LBJ."
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