The un-nutty professor

One archaeologist is changing everything

By Lisa Bennett

Once, a very long time ago, silly humans believed the world we live on was flat. So much so that they actually imprisoned and sometimes even tortured and killed people who dared to say otherwise. Crazy, right?

Unfortunately, while our knowledge about the world and universe around us has vastly improved, we silly humans still cling to commonly held beliefs about history and science like a child to a security blanket. We just can’t seem to let go. Fortunately for us, there are people, like Dr. James M. Adovasio of the Archaeological Institute of America, who are fearless in their approach to discovering and validating the truth about our ancient ancestors, despite commonly held beliefs. His presentations of the idea of pre-Clovis cultures and his anti-androgenic view of early societies have contrasted starkly with the contemporary views of his peers.

In the 1920s and 1930s, discoveries made near Clovis, New Mexico, surprised and excited archaeological circles. Based on findings at multiple sites, it was determined that the prehistoric, paleo-Indian peoples, dubbed the “Clovis Culture,” were the first human ancestors of the native cultures in the Americas. It was believed that they inhabited the Americas during the latter part of the Ice Age, called the Pleistocene Period. According to early literature, the Clovis people presumably crossed the Bering Strait over a land bridge that once existed between Eurasia and North America called the “Beringia.” That belief held firm until Adovasio began uncovering startling new evidence to the contrary during his excavation at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter between 1973 and 1978.

Through careful and exceedingly meticulous work, he came to the conclusion that the artifacts were, in fact, pre-Clovis, meaning they came from a culture much older than the Clovis culture. Opponents of his pre-Clovis work, including James Mead, argue the site may have been contaminated with coal. They also pointed out the absence of Pleistocene fauna. However, Adovasio’s exacting methods and thorough research proved there was no chance for contamination. In addition, he points out that though only a tiny amount of Pleistocene bone was recovered, all of the species represented by those finds had been discovered in previous Pleistocene contexts.

SunWatch Indian Village and Archaeological Park Manager and anthropologist Andrew Sawyer explains, “I think going into it, he knew there were going to be doubters, so he really made sure that his excavation techniques and how he collected the samples and all the analysis he did was as clean and professional as possible.

Adovasio’s findings sparked a debate that raged for years. “He had cultural layers, well-dated layers that were indicating pre-Clovis,” Sawyer says. “Even well into the ’80s and ’90s, no one wanted to believe him. But then in the mid to late ’90s and 2000s, there were enough other sites in North and South America that were indicating a good possibility of pre-Clovis occupation that people started to come around to his way of thinking.”

Though the Clovis debate has continued to a much lesser extent today, Adovasio has been instrumental in guiding a reluctant few toward a broader understanding of our predecessors. “I will no longer be presenting with the mindset of trying to make a case so to speak, but rather from the standpoint of where do we go next,” Adovasio says. “What do we do next, now that we know Clovis was clearly not the first?”

And so, like Galileo Galilei before him who stood up to the Inquisition to assert that the world was round, Adovasio has stood up to conventional thought and paved a way forward, toward a deeper and more meaningful understanding of our ancient past.

In his upcoming presentation, “Early Human Populations and the New World: A Biased Perspective,” Adovasio plans to discuss his findings and the many new questions that have arisen because of them: How often did people come here? How many different pre-Clovis backgrounds were there? How many genetic homelands were there, and how many different technologies did they arrive with? How many pre-Clovis colonies were failures? “Now that the majority of the profession knows that there were people
here earlier than that,” Adovasio says, “it’s trying to figure out how many different technologies and different adaptations are represented in North and South America before 13,000 radiocarbon years ago.”

The presentation will take place on Saturday, March 19 at 10:30 a.m. at the SunWatch Indian Village and Archaeological Park, 2301 W. River Rd. in Dayton. Admission to the presentation is free thanks to a generous donation by an anonymous donor and the Archaeological Institute of America. However, normal fees apply to visits to the museum. Guests are welcome to bring coffee or other drinks, and pastries will be served. Seating is available on a first-come first-serve basis. For more information, please visit sunwatch.org.

Reach DCP freelance writer Lisa Bennett at LisaBennett@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Lisa Bennett at LisaBennett@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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