Clovis First and
Pre-Clovis Meadowcroft Rockshelter Discussion
By Mark A.
This report is modified from a section in a
2004 National Historic Landmarks nomination for Meadowcroft Rockshelter written
by the author.
Meadowcroft Rockshelter officially became a National Historic Landmark on 5 April 2005.
Well-dated cultural materials from the lower levels of Meadowcroft
Rockshelter provided the first serious challenge to the Clovis-first view of
the peopling of the New World. Clovis points
were first named after specimens recovered from Blackwater Draw Locality No. 1 where they were found in association with extinct animals in
1933 (Boldurian and Cotter 1999). With
the advent of radiocarbon dating, the Clovis Culture, as it has now come to be
known, was dated to between 11,500 to 10,500 B.P. Characteristic materials of the Clovis Culture included fluted
Clovis Points, well-made bifaces, prismatic blades, spurred end scrapers and
other less diagnostic lithic materials often found in association with extinct
animals. By the 1960’s, Clovis Culture
was the earliest well-dated complex in the New World. However, dating of the Clovis Culture also
became a barrier for investigations into the peopling of the New
World. Over the years many
more Clovis or Clovis-like (in
terms of the fluted point styles) sites have been found in North
America. The wide-spread
nature of these sites has resulted in Clovis
becoming a horizon marker in North America and
supposedly demonstrates the spread of the culture across the continent. Clovis
allegedly was the “first” culture complex of the peoples who migrated from Siberia
into Alaska and then south
through an ice-free corridor into the continental United
States. This view has become known as the
Clovis-first hypothesis (Meltzer 1991).
archaeologists examining the data for the Clovis-first hypothesis were bothered
by claims that it represented the earliest migrants into the New
World (Bonnichsen and Turnmire 1999:2; Collins 2000). The characteristic Clovis
fluted point style is only found in the New World. It does not occur in any known complexes in
the Old World.
However, there is a single specimen of a biface with a long channel
flake removed on one face from the Uptar site in Siberia
(King and Slobodin 1996). This specimen
does not really resemble a Clovis point and is a unique
item from the Uptar site. It may well
represent only an accidental channel flake removed from a biface. Comparisons of Clovis
and other early point styles with Solutrean points (Stanford and Bradley 2000,
2002) indicated there were roughly similarly shaped points from European
Solutrean sites, but no fluted ones. In
any case, there is no culture in the Old World that
habitually fluted bifaces to make projectile points as did the members of the
Clovis Culture. Straus (2000:224), an
Old World European specialist, states; “credit should be given where credit is
due: Native Americans, descended from diverse Asian populations, were the
makers of Clovis and ‘pre-Clovis’
The Clovis Culture did not
develop in the Old World, since its development and
spread cannot be traced directly from the Old to New World.
is an indigenous New World development. As such, at least one other culture must
have come from the Old World to the New and have been
present prior to Clovis so Clovis
could develop out of that culture. Clovis
definitely was not first. This fact has
resulted in the development of various Pre-Clovis hypotheses concerning the
peopling of the New World. It also has resulted in archaeologists looking for demonstrable
Pre-Clovis sites. Meadowcroft
Rockshelter was not originally excavated with the intention of finding a
Pre-Clovis site, but it ended up being the first real claimant for that
title. As such, it also became a
lighting rod for criticism because it challenged the Clovis-first
hypothesis. Most of these challenges
revolve around the radiocarbon dating of the early levels from Meadowcroft
which will be discussed in detail below.
The Pre-Clovis hypotheses
suggest that the progenitor of the Clovis culture would
have to have certain technological features that could evolve into Clovis
(Standford and Bradley 2002:257-260).
For example, it can hypothesize that Pre-Clovis peoples made lanceolate
points since it is unlikely that the lanceolate Clovis
fluted point style developed out of tanged, notched or shouldered point
types. The development of fluting
technology would change the lanceolate point of Pre-Clovis into a Clovis
point. Use of a blade technology in the
Pre-Clovis group would also be likely since Clovis
made and used prismatic blades for a variety of tools, including end scrapers
made on blades.
Unfluted lanceolate points and
prismatic blades are also characteristics of later Plano
cultural complexes. The Clovis-first
hypothesis suggests that there was a progression from the basally-fluted Clovis
to fully-fluted Folsom into unfluted Plano
points. It has been argued that it
makes no sense for there to be an unfluted lanceolate point Pre-Clovis culture
that became fluted point Clovis and Folsom cultures only to change back to
unfluted lanceolate point Plano cultures.
That argument might be persuasive if the temporal gap between production
of unfluted lanceolate pre-Clovis and Plano
types actually existed. However, it is
now becoming increasingly apparent that things were not so simple during the
The increasing number and
complexity of Paleo-Indian cultures has been summarized by Frison (1993). At the Hell Gap, Carter/Kerr-McGee and Jim
Pitts sites, unfluted Goshen points
were recovered in stratified contexts below Folsom levels (Frison
1993:7-10; Frison, et al. 1996:205-206; Stanford 1999:308). A
series of nine radiocarbon dates indicate Goshen
materials from the Mill Iron site are more of less of equivalent age to Clovis
and early Folsom (Frison 1993:8-9; Frison 1996:8). Haynes (1992:364) questioned the earliest five Goshen
dates as being possibly contaminated by lignite because one other date that was
greater than 20,000 B.P. was obtained.
Haynes noted it was clearly out of line with other dates from the
site. However, one anomalous date does
not prove any other date was contaminated.
The anomalous date from Mill Iron shows that if such contamination
occurred at the site, it should really throw off the date. Also, if the points found below the Folsom
level had been Clovis, there would
not be any questioning of the dates.
Lignite, vitrinized wood and coal contamination have become the standard
claim made against radiocarbon dates that do not support a Clovis-first
hypothesis. Regardless of any questions
concerning the Mill Iron radiocarbon dates, the stratigraphic placement of Goshen
points below Folsom styles demonstrate they are of equivalent age to Clovis.
They prove that unfluted lanceolate
points were made when fluted points complexes existed, and that the fluted
point complexes did not exist by themselves in a vacuum. There also are data for the overlap of other
Plano point styles with Folsom
Holliday et al. (1999:449-451) were disturbed when AMS
radiocarbon dates they ran on samples from the Plainview
site yielded “a surprisingly wide range of ages (Holliday et al.,
1999:449).” The early dates were
dismissed as somehow contaminated from an “unknown” source (Holliday et al.,
1999:449). They state this because “the
fluted Clovis and Folsom styles
appear to have essentially the same age range in both the northern and southern
Great Plains and occupy relatively discrete time
intervals (Holliday et al., 1999:451).”
They presume Plano forms
must also fall into discrete time intervals and, therefore, the radiocarbon
dates must be contaminated. However,
the dates could be interpreted in a different manner. Instead of presuming any early dates for unfluted lanceolate
points are contaminated because of a Clovis/Folsom-first bias, the dates may in
fact show that the points were used over a long period of time.
It should be pointed out that
the previously mentioned Goshen
points, which have been found in levels below Folsom materials, greatly
resemble Plainview points (Frison
1993:8; Frison et al. 1996:205-206).
Frison et al. (1996:206) indicates “one of us (Haynes 1991) has raised
the possibility that the Plainview type site is as early as Clovis, but if
Plainview in the south is younger than Goshen to the north, it would require
the Goshen-Plainview continuum to have had a long life and Folsom to have come
and gone within the Goshen-Plainview time frame.” Thus, there does seem to be a long period of use for unfluted
lanceolate projectile points in the Great Plains which
would explain the range of radiocarbon dates for unfluted lanceolate
Goshen-Plainview points. Clovis-first
supporters also do not consider how or why some Great Plains Plano assays are
selectively contaminated by some unknown mechanism and yield older radiocarbon assays
while Clovis and Folsom dates from the same region are not so
contaminated. A reasonable conclusion
is that the early Plano dates
actually are correct, and unfluted point styles were produced over a wide range
during the Paleo-Indian period.
Very early unfluted lanceolate
points have also been found in South America. Lanceolate El Jobo-like points have been
recovered at the Monte Verde site, Chile
(Collins 1997). The Pre-Clovis
occupation at Monte Verde has been dated to at least 12,500 B.P. (Dillehay
1997). There now is a consensus that
Monte Verde is a Pre-Clovis site (Meltzer et al. 1997). El Jobo lanceolate points were also
recovered from Taima-Taima, Venezuela
in early contexts. However, Lynch
(1990:18) questioned the dates for these remains because of possible mixing of
older and younger remains. Gruhn and
Bryan (1991:343) disagree with Lynch’s assessment of the Taima-Taima
stratigraphy and relationships. They
indicate a series of 14 radiocarbon dates ranging from 13,390 to 12,580 B.P.
firmly date the Unit I stratum and association of extinct animals with human
artifacts. Six dates from the Unit III
stratum that caps Unit I range from 10,290 to 9650 B.P. and confirm the early
dates for materials from Unit I. They
indicate Unit I was not disturbed or mixed with younger materials. Lynch’s
(1991:349) reply did not really refute Gruhn and Bryan’s
assertions. Lynch simply indicated he was not certain what the stratigraphy was
like at Taima-Taima. Ardila and
Politis’ (1989) new radiocarbon assays and data from Taima-Taima and Lavallee’s
(2000:46-47) review of the stratigraphy and dates confirms the early claims for
the El Jobo remains from Taima-Taima.
Dillehay (2000:128-132) also considers the early remains from
Taima-Taima as valid Pre-Clovis materials.
Thus, the El Jobo point is another example of an unfluted lanceolate
Pre-Clovis style in the Americas.
The question really should be
whether or not there ever was a time when unfluted lanceolate point complexes
did not exist during the Paleo-Indian Period.
There appears to be a continuum in use of unfluted lanceolate points in
dating prior to Clovis and lasting
until after the end of Folsom. Clovis,
Folsom and other fluted point complexes would better be viewed as popular
branches off of groups who produced unfluted lanceolate points. It should no longer be unexpected that a
Pre-Clovis Cultural complex would utilize unfluted lanceolate points, etc. There simply was no break in the production
of unfluted lanceolate points during the Paleo-Indian Period. New work can only extend the use and
production of unfluted lanceolate points further into the past.
Meadowcroft Rockshelter provided the impetus needed for a paradigm shift away
from the Clovis-first hypothesis where the New World was
occupied by people moving out of Beringia and Alaska
into the continental United States
via an ice-free corridor after 12,500 years ago. The new paradigm has the arrival of the First Americans dating
sometime prior to 12,500 years ago.
Currently, there is no single accepted hypothesis concerning how people
first arrived in the New World. Some hypotheses suggest that Pre-Clovis
peoples may have skirted the Wisconsinan ice sheets in boats along the
unglaciated coastlines of North America
during glacial maximum or perhaps even migrated by foot into the New World
prior to the Wisconsinan glacial maximum (Erlandson 2002; Stanford and Bradley
2002). Nevertheless, discussions
surrounding the data from Meadowcroft Rockshelter established the criteria for
the identification and study of Pre-Clovis sites, and forced anthropologists to
think about alternative methods for peopling the New World.
One criticism of the Meadowcroft Pre-Clovis materials was that
there were no other similar sites in the United
There now is at least one other site that is comparable to Meadowcroft
in terms of age and materials, Cactus Hill in Virginia
(McAvoy and McAvoy 1997, McAvoy 2000).
Two unfluted lanceolate points, blades, blade cores and utilized flakes
were recovered in stratified contexts below Clovis materials and dated to
15,070 B.P. + 70 years (13,120 B.C., uncorrected), 16,670 BP + 730
years (14,720 B.C. uncorrected, from a hearth) and 16,940 B.P. + 50
years (14,990 B.C., uncorrected, from a hearth)(McAvoy and McAvoy 1997:111,
167; McAvoy 2000; Anderson n.d.b:224).
A date of 19,700 B.P. + 130 years (17,750 B.C. uncorrected) dated
the base of the Cactus Hill dune and is below the cultural bearing levels
(Anderson n.d.b:224). It should also be
noted that two younger dates were obtained from the Pre-Clovis levels; 10,160
B.P. + 60 years (8210 B.C., uncorrected) and 9250 B.P. + 60 years
(7300 B.C., uncorrected) (Anderson
n.d.b:224). These later dates are
clearly anomalous since they were recovered below the Clovis
level. The artifacts from Cactus Hill
match the remains found at Meadowcroft Rockshelter with the exception that they
are made from different raw materials (primarily quartzite and chert) (McAvoy
and McAvoy 1997:179; Standford and Bradley 2002:260). The radiocarbon dates for the Cactus Hill materials also match
those from Meadowcroft.
The Topper site in South Carolina
is another site in the Eastern United States that has
produced blades and flakes in levels stratified below Clovis
remains (Goodyear et al., 1999). No
projectile points were recovered with the blades or flakes. However, the presence of blades in
Pre-Clovis levels matches that found at Meadowcroft and Cactus Hill. Unfortunately, there is no charcoal to
provide radiocarbon dates for these remains.
Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dates on the surrounding matrix
suggest the Topper site remains date between 16,000 and 13,000 B.P. (Goodyear
2001:6; Anderson n.d.b:226).
is another dated Pre-Clovis site. A
worked tibia, probably from a musk-ox, was directly AMS dated to 14,510 B.P. +
80 years (12,560 B.C., uncorrected) at Saltville (McDonald and Kay
1999:196). There also is a midden-like
scatter of 200 clam shells, 500 pieces of small vertebrate remains, charcoal
and 125 pieces of lithic debitage from the early stratum that is estimated to
date between 13,500 and 13,000 B.P. (Goodyear 2001:3).
from Meadowcroft Rockshelter, Cactus Hill, Topper and Saltville demonstrate
that there are Pre-Clovis inhabitants in the Eastern United States
prior to 11,500 B.P. Goodyear (2001:6)
states; “given the presence of bifacial projectiles at Meadowcroft and Cactus
Hill and perhaps at Saltville (SV-2) based on debitage, it is not difficult to
see Clovis emerging from these
technologies.” Claims that Meadowcroft Rockshelter represents a unique site are
also no longer valid. However, the number
of identified Pre-Clovis sites, including Meadowcroft Rockshelter, and quantity
of materials recovered from them remains rather small.
Cultural remains from the lowest strata at Meadowcroft Rockshelter
have been radiocarbon dated to between 16,000 and 13,000 B.P. in stratified
contexts below radiocarbon dated Early Archaic hearths and associated lithic
remains (Adovasio et al. 1990). The latter supports the radiocarbon age
ascription of the remains to the Paleo-Indian Period. As such, they are currently the earliest well-dated Paleo-Indian
remains in the Northeastern United States. Lepper (1999:366) states:
“The cultural assemblage documented from lower Stratum IIa has
been plausibly argued to represent a Pre-Clovis Upper Paleolithic technology (Adovasio
et al. 1988). The several radiocarbon
dates for this stratum are entirely consistent with this interpretation. There
are no ‘anomalous’ later Paleoindian or Archaic artifacts associated with these
dated early levels that might suggest substantial mixing or contamination.”
Nevertheless, there have been persistent claims that early
radiocarbon dates from Meadowcroft are contaminated by ancient carbon (Haynes
1980, 1991; Tankersley et al., 1987; Tankersley and Munson 1992). These claims hypothesize that ancient
particulate or soluble ionized carbon derived from nearby coal, lignite and/or
vitrinized wood deposits were carried in local ground water to the site where
the ancient carbon was deposited in early charcoal samples from Meadowcroft. It should be pointed out that these were untested contamination hypotheses when
proposed that have been accepted by some as proven fact.
Haynes (1980:584-584; 1991) and Tankersley et al. (1987) claimed
that the Meadowcroft dates were contaminated with soluble ancient carbon from
more deeply buried soils, coal, etc. In
order to address Haynes (1980, 1991) and Tankersley et al. (1987) questions
concerning soluble carbon contamination of the samples, Adovasio
et al. (1990:352) ran AMS dates on the last remaining non-cultural sample from
Stratum I (no samples from cultural bearing Stratum IIa remained to be
processed) at Meadowcroft.
Nevertheless, the Stratum I sample was the best sample to test the
hypothesis that there was some type of soluble coal contamination of
Meadowcroft radiocarbon samples. It
should produce more widely divergent dates between the split soluble and solid
samples because of longer exposure to soluble coal contamination than any
younger Stratum II dates, if such contamination existed. The increased exposure
to the contaminant would make any divergence in the dates wider and less likely
to be due to statistical counting errors.
Thus, it would be even more likely to show contamination occurred than
those from any later cultural sample.
The sample was examined for evidence of particulate coal, etc., and for Densosporites spores that would have
been present in local coal samples by both the Smithsonian and Oxford
radiocarbon labs. No evidence for coal,
etc., was found in the sample. Then the soluble portion was extracted from the
solid portion and both portions of the split sample were independently AMS
dated at Oxford. Adovasio et
al. (1990:352) indicated:
“The result for
the solid fraction was 31,400 + 1,200 years, 29,450 B.C.
(OaX-363). The soluble fraction was dated at 30,900 +
(OaX-364). These dates conform very
closely to a previously
Smithsonian lab date of 30,710 + 1,140 years, 28,760 B.C. for
this level. . .”
If the hypothesis was correct concerning ground water soluble coal
contamination, the split solid and soluble samples should have varied widely
and been different from the Smithsonian sample run from that same level. The Smithsonian date should also have
produced an older date than the pretreated solid charcoal sample if the hypothesis
was correct. However, the three dates
from Stratum I are statistically identical.
This should not have happened if they really were contaminated with
either particulate or soluble older contaminates.
Tankersley et al. (1987) discussed how to recognize coal
contamination of dates at archaeological sites and provided examples of sites
they believed had dates contaminated by coal.
Unfortunately, in the examples of proposed contamination they provided,
the only actual proof was that coal was found at or near the sites. They did not demonstrate the dated samples
actually contained or were contaminated with coal. This was an assumption on their part, and one that may not be
correct. Samples from 11Mx66 and 12Po10
were not off by much from the expected dates (Tankersley et al.,
1987:320). These could have been simple
statistical inaccuracies of the counting process (e.g. Shott 1992). Using two sigma standard deviations would
place most of these dates either in the expected counting range or just outside
it. This is not proof of sample
contamination. Other samples from
46Wd35 and 33Ha17 were widely divergent (16,000 to 37,000 years) from the expected dates (Tankersley
et al., 1987:320). These were unlikely
dates based on stratigraphic context of the samples in association with Late
Woodland and Fort Ancient
remains at these sites. Thus, they
probably were contaminated by coal or some other substance. However,
contamination (whether by coal or some other material) was actually
demonstrated by the context of the samples which indicated the dates were
incorrect. Conversely, early dated
samples from Meadowcroft Rockshelter were recovered in good stratigraphic
location (Adovasio et al., 1990). Early dated samples were not found in
association with much later levels, materials and dates as were the examples
used by Tankersley et al. (1987).
Nearly identical radiocarbon dates from Cactus Hill (see above) on similar
artifacts also suggest the Meadowcroft samples were correctly dated and were
not the result of older contamination (Custer 1996:92; Meltzer 2002:52).
Nevertheless, Tankersley and Munson (1992) continued to press the
claim that vitrinized wood, coal, etc., somehow contaminated the Meadowcroft
radiocarbon date samples. They also
extended the claim of contamination to the later dates at the shelter. This was largely based on recovery of a
carbonized cob of primitive 16 row popcorn from Stratum IV in association with
charcoal dates from hearths of 2325 B.P. + 75 years (375 B.C.,
uncorrected) and 2290 + 90 years (340 B.C., uncorrected) (Adovasio
et al., 1997:9). These dates would make
the cob the earliest dated maize from the Eastern United States
(Tankersley and Munson 1992:324).
However, the presence of seemingly early maize is not proof that the
post-Paleo-Indian Meadowcroft charcoal samples were somehow contaminated with
older materials. First, the charcoal
samples associated with the maize were recovered in the dry portion of the shelter where ground water percolation did not
occur. Simply put, the proposed
mechanism for contaminating radiocarbon samples is not present in the dry
portion of the shelter. Second, the
contamination claims ignore the Early Woodland artifacts that were associated
with the cited dates, and for that matter, appropriate artifacts recovered in
association with the other later dated samples from Meadowcroft. If the dates are too old for the maize, they
are correct for the associated artifacts.
If the dates actually should be younger, then they would not accurately
date associated artifacts. However,
there is another possible explanation for the seemingly anomalous dating of the
maize. It might be that the maize
actually is not from the Early Woodland period and was introduced to the level
by unidentified bioturbation. This
would not be the first case of maize being recovered from seemingly good early
contexts in the Eastern United States but was
subsequently found to date to later times (e.g., Conard et al., 1984).
In spite of claims to the contrary, there is a chance that the cob
is accurately dated by the associated radiocarbon dates at Meadowcroft. The specimen of maize from Stratum IV is of
a primative 16 row popcorn (Cushman 1982:216).
Maize from post-Stratum IV levels was all of a “high yield” form of
maize (Cushman 1982:218), most likely 8 row Northern Flint. Most maize recovered from Eastern
North America from post-A.D. 800 contexts is also 8 row Northern
Flint (Kraft 2001:280-281).
Thus, the type of maize recovered from Stratum IV suggests, but does not
prove, it is an early variety. Although
no earlier radiocarbon dated macrobotanical evidence for maize has been found
in Eastern North America, there are microbotanical data
that suggest maize was present in the region at a much earlier date. Maize pollen was found in a core taken in Lake
Shelby, Alabama, between organic
samples dated to 3580 B.P. + 100 years (1630 B.C., uncorrected) and 3240
B.P. + 80 years (1290 B.C., uncorrected)(Fearn and Liu 1995:111). Fearn and Liu (1995:110-111) also note that
maize pollen has been recovered from dated contexts at Fort Center, Florida
(2500 B.P, 550 B.C. uncorrected), B.L. Bigbee
Lake in Mississippi (2400 B.P., 450 B.C., uncorrected) and Dismal Swamp,
Virginia (2200 B.P., 250 B.C. uncorrected).
Based on these data, Fearn and Liu (1995:115), “speculate that corn was
present in eastern North America much earlier than the
macrobotanical record indicates but that it was cultivated as a minor crop and
left only a sketchy microfossil record similar to the situation reported for
the tropics.” The dated maize pollen
samples indicate it is possible for maize to have been present at Meadowcroft
Rockshelter during the Early Woodland Period.
However, to definitively settle the age of the Meadowcroft cob, it needs
to be directly AMS dated. In any case,
Tankersley and Munson’s hypothesis that dates associated with the early maize
from Meadowcroft demonstrate radiocarbon sample contamination at Meadowcroft
Rockshelter is unsupported by both associated artifact remains and lack of a
Tankersley and Munson (1992:323-324) also claimed to have examples
of two additional sites that display coal contaminated radiocarbon dates; Enoch
Fork Rockshelter (15Pe50) and Swan’s Landing (12Hr304). Adovasio et
al. (1992:329) indicated Tankersley and Munson’s claim that a 13,480 B.P. date
was associated with an Early Archaic Kirk level at Enoch Fork Rockshelter was
incorrect. The sample was actually derived
from several levels below the Early Archaic Kirk level at Enoch Fork and was
not associated with it.
Stratigraphically, it was not out of line and not necessarily
anomalous. It is unclear whether or not
coal may have contaminated the one sample cited from the Early Archaic Kirk
levels at Swan’s Landing or whether it was simply a statistical anomaly from
the counting process. However, even if
the Swan’s Landing sample was contaminated with a coal derived substance, it
does not prove that Meadowcroft materials were so contaminated. At Swan’s Landing, it would be the
associated materials that showed it was an anomalous date. The early dated samples from Meadowcroft
were not recovered in association with younger remains.
Adovasio et al. (1980, 1990, 1992, 1998b, 1999)
have addressed additional claims concerning contamination of the early
radiocarbon samples by Haynes (1980, 1991), Tankersley et al. (1987) and
Tankersley and Munson (1992). An actual
coal seam is not located in the immediate vicinity of Meadowcroft Rockshelter,
but “small, isolated and discontinuous fragments of vitrinized Pennsylvania-age
wood” do occur west of the north (back) wall of the shelter (Adovasio
et al., 1990:349).
Adovasio et al. (1980:590) indicate:
“Haynes and Stuckenrath
collected samples of the upper vitrinite
1976. Haynes (personal communication)
kept his sample
in a beaker of
water on his Tucson windowsill for
happened. Stuckenrath boiled his sample
in sodium hydroxide
to discover that
the pretreatment removed only a trace of soil adhering
to the sample;
eventually he boiled it in every reagent and hydrocarbon
laboratory, but nothing happened.”
In other words, the vitrinize wood from Meadowcroft Rockshelter is
not soluble in anything that would be found in local ground water and in almost
any other type of chemical agent. It
cannot be a source of contamination at the shelter in spite of the claims that
Concerning actual coal contamination Adovasio
et al. (1990:351) state:
“Even before the
publication or prepublication circulation
of the manuscript
by Tankersley et al. (1987) every radiometric
sample from all
Pleistocene-age levels was examined for coal
both optical and scanning-electron microscopy.
No coal particles
were ever identified by the four radiocarbon
by the independent researchers despite the fact
that in order to
contaminate a sample on the magnitude that
suggested, nearly 35 percent of the sample would
have to be coal.”
Thus, it is unlikely that the early radiocarbon samples from
Meadowcroft were contaminated with ancient coal.
Goldberg and Arpin (1999) also examined Meadowcroft Rockshelter
deposits using a micromorphological analysis of the sediments to determine the
depositional and post-depositional history of the shelter. They state, “the results largely confirm
the original work of the excavators, pointing to deposition by attrition, roof
fall, and sheet wash, and reveal no evidence of groundwater contamination of
the early levels” (Goldberg and Arpin 1999:325). Also, microscopic examination of the Strata I/II through V
sediments under fluorescent light, a coal petrology technique to determine if
non-particulate organic materials are present, resulted in them stating, “observation of the thin sections in
ultraviolet light revealed no extraordinary fluorescence that could be
interpreted as humate or coal particulate contamination (Goldberg and Arpin
1999:340).” Goldberg and Arpin
(1999:340) conclude that “we see no evidence of groundwater saturation of any
strata nor do we see evidence of any other mechanisms by which particulate or
non-particulate contamination could have been introduced into the sediments in
general and into the charcoal samples in particular.” In other words, the
contamination mechanisms proposed by Haynes (1980, 1991), Tankersley et al.
(1987) and Tankersley and Munson (1992) simply are not present at Meadowcroft Rockshelter. Meltzer (2002:52) states “that the radiocarbon ages were
contaminated by groundwater seeping through the lower deposits on site – was
effectively rebutted by micromophological analyses of the sediments.” Anderson
(n.d.a.:73) indicates Adovasio et al. “appear
to have effectively refuted arguments against the [radiocarbon] dating” at
Meadowcroft. Collins (2002), Custer
(1996:92), Goodyear (2001:2) and Kraft (2001:54) also now accept the early
radiocarbon dates from Meadowcroft.
Several other points should be made concerning contamination by
particulate or ionized carbon from coal, lignite and/or vitrinized wood carried
in ground water. First, if the mere
presence of nearby coal is reason to demonstrate contamination of radiocarbon
date samples, then it should be noted that most of Western
Pennsylvania, Ohio, West
Indiana and Illinois
are underlain by coal deposits. Also,
if ground water really could easily pick up ancient contaminants from coal,
etc., and then have the contaminants somehow inserted into relatively recent
charcoal, nearly all dated samples from these states should be so
affected. Needless to say, no one has
made such claims for the archaeological record from the region, and it is
unlikely that most samples and dates were contaminated by coal, etc. Second, any contamination mechanism must
explain how particulate coal fragments only drop out into charcoal samples
while not being found scattered throughout site sediments from this region in
general and Meadowcroft strata in particular.
Ancient particulate coal has to have some type of special affection for
or attraction to younger charcoal, but not to sand, silt and other
materials. Similarly, why is ionized
ancient carbon only attracted to younger charcoal? Third, why are the contaminants apparently inordinately attracted
to charcoal samples from sites that are from the early Paleo-Indian period
where they are recovered stratigraphically below Early Archaic materials and/or
other Paleo-Indian remains? These
ancient contaminants seem to be highly selective in where they will eventually
repose, and any proposed contamination mechanism must explain this
distribution. Thus, it remains for
those continuing to claim that the Meadowcroft dates were somehow contaminated
by coal, lignite and vitrinized wood to actually prove that they were. No actual data supporting claims of such
Kelly (1987) suggested contamination of the early radiocarbon
dates might have occurred through bioturbation and/or human activities. There is little evidence in support of this
hypothesis. Animals, insects, etc.,
would have to carry the contaminants as solid particles and not as soluble ones
to the locus of the dates. These
particulates would have been easily recognized by the labs examining the samples. The animals, etc., would also have to move
the contaminants a relatively long way for those species. The closest vitrinized wood is over 7 m away
and coal, etc., would have to travel at least 0.8 km to arrive at the site (Adovasio
et al., 1990:349-351). Animals would
also have to go through several large rock falls at the site to bring any
vitrinized wood particles to the early sample locations. These animals, etc., would then have to then
dig around and contaminate every hearth in Stratum II with sufficient coal,
etc., to have the dates run in appropriate stratigraphic order. Those were very smart animals if this
actually happened! This scenario is
highly unlikely, and it is also unlikely that such extensive burrows would have
gone totally unnoticed by the crew who excavated the microstratigraphy of the
The early radiocarbon dates have also been questioned because of a
lack of associated extinct fauna and ancient flora remains from Meadowcroft
Rockshelter (Mead 1980; Dincauze 1981, 1984). One problem is that most bone remains from Stratum IIa were
fragmentary, calcined and relatively small.
Only 11 bone fragments were recovered and species identified included white-tailed
deer, eastern chipmunk, southern flying squirrel, deer mouse, passenger pigeon,
toad and colubrid snake (Guilday and Parmalee 1982:171). Guilday and Parmalee (1982:171) believed the
chipmunk and possibly the deer mouse may have burrowed down into these levels. All the early faunal remains can be held in
one hand and are hardly a representative sample of what was in the region
during the Late Pleistocene.
Nevertheless, it should be stressed that Late Pleistocene biological
communities were unlike any modern ones.
FaunMap data for the 15,500 to 9500 B.P. Late Glacial period (see the
Illinois State Museum web site: http://museum.state.il.us/research/faunmap/query/)
indicated white-tailed deer, southern flying squirrel, deer mouse (in this
case, assuming that it did not burrow into the level) and eastern chipmunk
(also assuming in this case it did not burrow into this level) may have been
found in the area around Meadowcroft Rockshelter during the Late
Pleistocene. FaunMap does not provide
data on bird species, but passenger pigeons nested as far north as James
Bay, Ontario during the Historic
Period (Todd 1963:430), and this suggests it could have been present at
Meadowcroft during the Late Glacial period.
The toad specimen could not be identified to species, but the American
toad, Bufo americanus, is one of the
more common species and has a modern northern range boundary from southeastern Manitoba
across to James Bay and into Labrador
(Sutton and Sutton 1985:576). The
modern distributions for all of the mammal species except southern flying
squirrel also extend north to at least James Bay (Figs.
23, 24, 25, 26) indicating they are all fairly hardy species. In other words, although the remains from
the Stratum IIa are generally characterized as “temperate” Holocene species,
they also are a part of the cooler modern Canadian biotic regime. Thus, it is not surprising to find them
included with Late Pleistocene assemblages from cooler climates as demonstrated
in the Late Glacial FaunMap data. The
lack of extinct species may only be due to the selective nature of the animals
hunted by early Meadowcroft inhabitants and the luck of preservation for
Similarly, the quantity of floral remains from Stratum IIa are
minimal, but are usually assigned to “temperate” Holocene species (Adovasio
et al., 1980:593-594). Pollen remains
were not well-preserved in Stratum IIa and only 26 individual pollen grains
were identified. Of these, only 9 were
pollen from trees; 6 from Tsuga sp.,
2 from Quercus sp. and 1 from Betula sp. (Adovasio
et al. 1998a:16, Table 8). The rest of
the pollen was from grasses and other small plants. The sample is insufficient to actually characterize the local
environment during the Paleo-Indian Period.
The early macrofloral remains suggest deciduous forest elements were
located near Meadowcroft during the Late Pleistocene. These data are not
inconsistent with pollen and climatic data found in Ohio
during the Late Pleistocene. Shane
(1994) indicates there were at least some minor deciduous forest elements
present throughout the Late Pleistocene.
However, deciduous forest elements increased while coniferous species
declined to “low frequencies” during the 13,000 to 11,000 B.P. period (Shane 1994:12).
Thus, it likely that the sheltered Cross Creek Drainage functioned as a
refugium for temperate species during the Late Pleistocene as proposed by Braun
(1950). Finally, the presence of
deciduous forest macrobotanical elements at Meadowcroft is likely due to
selective collecting by the early inhabitants who would have favored those
materials for food, etc., over those from coniferous species. As such, they do not accurately reflect the
percentages of species that were present at that time, only that they were
favored by the people living at Meadowcroft.
It should be noted that temperate forest remains were also found
in association with a Clovis-like point at the Shawnee-Minisink site, located
in the Delaware River Valley of Eastern Pennsylvania, and AMS dated to 10,940
B.P. + 90 years ago (8990 B.C., uncorrected) (Kauffman and Dent
1978:4-5; Dent and Kaufmann 1985; Dent 2002:55-57). This date was run on a hawthorn seed (Dent 2002:55). The presence of deciduous elements at Shawnee-Minisink (Kauffman and Dent
1978:4-5; Dent and Kaufmann 1985; Kraft 2001:69; Dent 2002:55-57) by the end of
the Pleistocene, when pollen samples from the area characterize it as having a
spruce-fir and pine forest (Dent 2002:69), does not seem to bother anyone since
they are associated with Clovis materials. Dent (2000:70) indicates:
“Boreal ecosystems feign monotony over time and space
(Winterhalder 1983:9). In reality,
boreal ecologies are actually complex and relatively dynamic mosaics,
consisting of many small habitats or ‘patches’. These patches are created by
local edaphic conditions, as well as by an internal rhythm of disturbance and
succession endemic to the ecosystem . . .”
The belief that there were successional bands of dense spruce and
pine forests moving across the Northeastern United States
during the Late Pleistocene and early Holocene must be rethought. As Dincauze (n.d.:177) states concerning our
view of Late Pleistocene plant communities; “the generalizations we have lived
with clearly mislead.” Plant
communities probably were much more mosaic in nature during those periods and
affected by edaphic and orographic conditions as much as climatic ones. The presence of deciduous elements at
Meadowcroft should not be considered unusual or proof that it must date to a
In summary, there is absolutely no proof of radiocarbon date
contamination at Meadowcroft Rockshelter.
The Pre-Clovis materials are in the appropriate stratigraphic
relationships with later materials (which critics always seem to ignore), and
the recent discoveries at Cactus Hill and other sites demonstrate it can no
longer be considered unique. In support
of this Custer (1996:93) states; “I think most archaeologists would now agree
that critics have run out of objections and we must regard the Meadowcroft
Rockshelter as a bona fide site predating 12,000 years ago.”
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Send any comments you may have about this article to me at:
Mark A. McConaughy
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