Clovis First and Pre-Clovis Meadowcroft Rockshelter Discussion

By Mark A. McConaughy

3 March 2004


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).


Nevertheless, some 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’ lithics.” 


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.  Clovis 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 Paleo-Indian period. 


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 (Frison 1993).  


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 the Americas 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.


Data from 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 States.  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).


Saltville, Virginia 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).


Materials 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 + 1,100 years,

            28,950 B.C. (OaX-364).  These dates conform very closely to a previously

            calculated 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 contamination mechanism.


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

            exposure in 1976.  Haynes (personal communication) kept his sample

            in a beaker of water on his Tucson windowsill for several months;

            nothing 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

            in his 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 it is.


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

            particles using both optical and scanning-electron microscopy.

            No coal particles were ever identified by the four radiocarbon

            laboratories or by the independent researchers despite the fact

            that in order to contaminate a sample on the magnitude that

            has been 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 Virginia, Kentucky, 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 contamination exists.

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 shelter.

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: 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 resident species. 

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 later period.

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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