50 years ago, scientists debated when humans first set foot in North America
Fifty years ago, the scientific community was deeply divided over when humans first set foot in North America. While some archaeologists and anthropologists claimed that people had arrived as early as 40,000 years ago, others argued that humans didn’t make it to the continent until just 12,000 years ago.
This disagreement was largely due to the fact that the evidence was limited and often inconclusive. In the decades prior to the 1970s, researchers had only uncovered a handful of stone tools and other artifacts that they believed to be indicative of human presence. However, these finds were often isolated and lacked any contextual information that would have allowed scientists to determine when they were made and by whom.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s that the debate began to shift. A number of new archaeological discoveries, coupled with advancements in carbon-dating technology, provided scientists with more robust evidence for early human habitation in North America.
One of the most significant finds was made in the late 1960s, when archaeologists uncovered an extensive network of underground dwellings in the American Southwest. These structures were believed to have been built by the Anasazi, a Native American people who lived in the region from about AD 1 to 1300. Carbon-dating of organic materials found in the dwellings suggested that the structures were built as early as 7,000 years ago, providing compelling evidence for a human presence in North America much earlier than had previously been believed.
Another major discovery came in the early 1970s, when archaeologists uncovered evidence of a human settlement in eastern Montana. This site, known as the Anzick Clovis site, contained the remains of several humans and a large number of stone tools that were similar to those used by the Clovis culture, a widespread prehistoric Native American culture. Carbon-dating of the site suggested that the settlement was established as early as 12,000 years ago, providing further evidence for a human presence in North America long before the arrival of Europeans.
These and other discoveries challenged the prevailing view that humans had only recently arrived in North America. Some scientists argued that these finds were the result of multiple migrations to the continent, with people from different parts of the world settling in different regions at different times. Others suggested that the early human presence in North America was the result of a single, early migration from Asia.
Despite the mounting evidence, the debate over the timing of the first human settlement in North America continued for several decades. Some scientists remained skeptical of the early dates suggested by carbon-dating and other methods, while others argued that the evidence was compelling and couldn’t be ignored.
Today, the scientific consensus is that humans first arrived in North America at least 15,000 years ago, and possibly much earlier. While the debate over the timing of the first human settlement in North America has largely been resolved, many questions remain about the nature of these early settlements and the people who lived in them. Nevertheless, the discoveries of the past 50 years have provided a much more complete picture of the early human presence in North America and the complexity of the migrations that brought people to the continent.