Monte Verde Archaeological Site


The following article is a synopsis of material written by Steven Beasley from his notes at the Paleo Symposium in 2013, Mark Rose and the Wikipedia free encyclopedia and edited by Lloyd Schroder.







The Monte Verde archaeological site is located in the region of the sub-Antarctic and evergreen softwood forests of the low mountains of southern Chile. The site shows the existence of a group of people that lived throughout the beaches and banks of sand and gravel in Chinchihuapi Creek about 14,800 years ago. After the site had been occupied, a turf coating was formed by a swamp that covered the entire site, allowing the conservation of the remains of the past.







The site was discovered in late 1975 when a veterinary student visited the area of Monte Verde, where severe erosion was occurring due to logging. The student was shown a strange "cow bone" collected by nearby local people who had found it exposed in the eroded Chinchihuapi Creek. The bone later proved to be from a mastodon. Two years later, in 1977, archaeological excavation was begun under the direction of Dr. Tom Dillehay, an American anthropologist and professor at the University of Austral de Chile.


The early dating at Monte Verde adds to the evidence showing that the human settlement of the Americas pre-dates the Clovis culture by roughly 1000 years. This contradicts the previously accepted "Clovis first" model which holds that settlement of the Americas began after 13,500 BP. The Monte Verde findings were initially dismissed by most of the scientific community, but in recent years the evidence has become more widely accepted in some archaeological circles, although vocal "Clovis First" advocates remain.




The History of the Clovis-First Orthodoxy




Monte Verde's great importance is that, granted the site is valid, it breaks the Clovis barrier, that it is earlier than the widespread Clovis culture which has been accepted for nearly 50 years to be the earliest in the Americas. This belief in the Clovis-first model for the colonization of the New World had become so entrenched that many scholars felt that it stifled debate about the subject and that its proponents were self-appointed defenders of the faith.


The rise of the Clovis Orthodoxy goes back to the first decades of this century. Throughout the 1890s William Henry Holmes of the Bureau of American Ethnology and Thomas Chamberlin of United States Geological Survey challenged many dubious claims for Pleistocene (Ice Age) archaeological finds in the New World, a role that was continued into the 1920s by physical anthropologist Ales Hrdlicka of the Smithsonian Institution.







In 1926 Jesse Figgins of the Colorado Museum of Natural History sent a crew to collect a skeleton of an extinct bison from a fossil bed near Folsom, New Mexico. Figgin's crew found a stone point at the site but moved it before an archaeologist could verify its association with the bones. Hrdlicka refused to accept the find as evidence of Pleistocene occupation of the New World by humans. Figgins, infuriated, told his crew to contact him immediately if another such find was made and to leave the point undisturbed until he arrived. In August 1927 another point was found. It was left in the ground, examined by outside experts and photographed. The find proved that humans had entered the New World sometime before the end of the Ice Age some 10,000 years ago.







In 1932 Figgins found larger, heavier fluted points with mammoth skeletons at a site in Colorado. Five years later, near Clovis, New Mexico, robust fluted points were again found with mammoth bones in a deposit beneath a layer containing Folsom points and bison skeletons. The robust points, now named Clovis, were recognized as even older than the Folsom points.







Characteristic of both points is a flute, a flake struck off the base along the length of the point, presumably to facilitate hafting. The site names are also used for the peoples represented by these specific artifacts, while the broader term "Paleoindian" applies to Clovis (left), Folsom (right), and other early cultures.


In 1964 University of Arizona geochronologist C. Vance Haynes linked the dates of Clovis sites obtained through radiocarbon dating, then a fairly new technique, and evidence about glacial conditions in the north. The distinctive points had been found throughout the continental United States, all in contexts dated to about 11,500-11,000 years ago, and none before 12,000, the date geologists believed an ice-free corridor opened up between the Cordilleran Glacier atop the Canadian Rockies and the massive Laurentide Ice Sheet to the east, permitting southward migration. Haynes proposed a very rapid occupation of the Americas, with Paleoindians virtually sweeping across the continents. This accorded well with the archaeological evidence.







The Clovis toolkit, that included fluted points, bifaces, knives, scrapers, drills, and gravers, was apparently sufficient to enable them to exploit a range of environments. Evidence of the mobility of Clovis groups came from the identification of chert, jasper, chalcedony, and other types of stone valued for making tools that was carried long distances, often over distances of 200 miles. A view that Clovis Paleoindians, mobile big-game hunters that were pursuing the Pleistocene megafauna (mammoth, mastodon, and extinct bison), were the first Americans was widely accepted. Claims were made from time to time that various sites, such as Meadowcroft Rockshelter in western Pennsylvania and Pedra Furada in Brazil, had pre-Clovis occupation phases. But none were convincing. Clovis-first was the rule. With Monte Verde generally accepted by 1997, the Clovis-first orthodoxy was overthrown and discussion on how and when the Americas were colonized became wide open.


The most prevalent theory today is the coastal migration hypothesis, which argues that people migrated from Asia down along the western coasts of North and South America. Monte Verde is located 8,000 miles south of the Bering Strait. Such a considerable distance was probably unreasonable to trek by foot, especially on ice. Furthermore, remains of 22 varieties of seaweed are referenced in regards to this theory. Modern native inhabitants of the regions use these particular local seaweed varieties for medicinal purposes. Using an ethnographic analogy, this suggests that the Monte Verde residents used these varieties for similar purposes, which further suggests an extensive knowledge of marine resources. This, in conjunction with a relative lack of stone tools, suggests that these first settlers were maritime-adapted hunter-gatherer-fishermen, and not necessarily big-game hunters like the Clovis people. Therefore, it is feasible that they traveled along the coast by boat or along the shoreline, and could survive on marine resources throughout the voyage south. The existence of other possible sites is supported by the presence of non-local items at Monte Verde such as plants, beach-rolled pebbles, quartz, and tar, indicating possible trade networks.


The Monte Verde dating has held up against arguments that perhaps floods moved the artifacts into older sediments or the sediments were contaminated by eroded ash from volcanic eruptions. The oldest previously known sights where identified with the Clovis people, a group of early Americans named after a site in New Mexico. Numerous 12,000-year-old Clovis sites have been found on both the eastern and western sides of North America. Beautifully- crafted leaf-shape projectile points, blades and burins, dating from 13,000 to 9,000 B.C. , have been found in Venezuela, Peru, Mexico, Idaho and Nevada.


David Meltzer, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist University told National Geographic, "How could people possibly have raced down from Alaska in a few hundred years? They were pioneering a landscape that was becoming increasingly unfamiliar as they moved south. They had to find water and figure out which plants and animals were edible, useful, harmful or even fatal. They had to cross formidable barriers and cope with new diseases. And they had to do all this while raising families on a vast continent devoid of other people. All of that takes time." Geneticists confirm this belief by pointing out that the languages and genetic material of native Americans is too diverse to be only 12,000 years old.


Scientist theorize the early Americans arrived in Chile one of three ways: 1) overland through a break in the glaciers that covered most of Canada; 2) skirting the glaciers using boats to follow the coast; or 3) taking a boat across the sea from Asia. Most scientist dismiss the third theory on the grounds that boat technology was not advanced enough to cross the ocean 12,000 years ago Early Australians, however, used boats to arrive in northern Australia about 60,000 years ago but they only needed to cross areas of open sea that were about 50 miles in distance.







The Monte Verde Excavations


From 1977 to 1985, Tom Dillehay of the University of Kentucky excavated at Monte Verde, some 31 miles (50 km) inland from the Pacific of southern Chile. The water-saturated deposits of the site, on Chinchihuapi Creek, afforded excellent preservation of organic remains in what was interpreted as a habitation surface, designated MV-II, of a small camp used by 20 to 30 people. Radiocarbon dates from the level averaged ~12,500 years ago. Among the features recorded by the excavators were two large and many small hearths and 12 huts about ten by 11.5 feet (3 by 3.5 m). Most of the stone tools found at the site were made of local raw material and consist of cobbles with a few flakes removed to make simple but functional working edges. There were two bifacially flaked points. Worked wood, from logs to branches, was also found. Bones, ivory, and possible tissue from mastodons were found along with remains of Pleistocene llamas, small mammals, fish, and mollusks. Remains of plants that could be from coastal to Andean to arid grassland habitats were recovered. The imprint of a human foot in clay is among the most intriguing finds from the site. Upstream, limited excavation uncovered another deposit, designated MV-I, with some possible stone tools and three possible hearths dated to 33,000 years old.







In the initial excavation, two large hearths were found and many small ones as well. The remains of local animals were found, in addition to wooden posts from approximately twelve huts. This led archaeologists to assume the population was around 20-30 inhabitants. A human footprint was also found in the clay, probably from a child. Inside the camp, archaeologists found a chunk of meat that still had preserved DNA. After a DNA analysis, it matched that of a mastodon, indicating the type of food the inhabitants ate.


Later, in 2007, Monte Verde would be associated with a close and new archaeological site known as Pilauco Bajo. Postulating that both sites would be complementary, Monte Verde would be a habitation site and Pilauco Bajo would be interpreted as a hunting and scavenging site.


The Monte Verde site has two distinct levels. The upper level, MV-II, has been extensively characterized. Its occupation is reliably dated to 14,800 – 13,800 BP. The lower level, MV-I, is less well understood. It was more ephemeral and came from ancient river sediments. Dillehay found charcoal scatters which may be the remnants of fireplaces next to possible stone and wood artifacts, and these were dated to at least 33,000BP. He acknowledges MV-I has "problems such as dubious human artifacts, questionable radiocarbon dates, or unreliable geological contexts" and hesitates "to accept this older level without more evidence and without sites of comparable age elsewhere in the Americas."





Tent Stakes still in place




According to Dillehay and his team, Monte Verde II was occupied around 14,800 – 13,800 BP by about twenty to thirty people. A twenty-foot-long tent-like structure of wood and animal hides was erected on the banks of the creek and was framed with logs and planks staked in the ground, making walls of poles covered with animal hides. Using ropes made of local reeds, the hides were tied to the poles creating separate living quarters within the main structure. Outside the tent-like structure, two large hearths had been built for community usage, most probably for tool making and craftwork.


Each of the living quarters had a brazier pit lined with clay. Around those hearths, many stone tools and remnants of spilled seeds, nuts, and berries were found. A 13,000-yr-old specimen of the wild potato, Solanum maglia, was also found at the site; these remains, the oldest on record for any species of potato, wild or cultivated, suggest that southern Chile was one of the two main centers for the evolution of Solanum tuberosum tuberosum, the common potato. Remains of forty-five different edible plant species were found within the site, over a fifth of them originating from up to 150 miles (240 km) away. This suggested that the people of Monte Verde either had trade routes or traveled regularly in this extended network.







Other important finds from this site include human coprolites, a five-inch footprint, assumed to have been made by a child, stone tools, and cordage. The date for this site was obtained by Dr. Dillehay with the use of radiocarbon dating of charcoal and bone found within the site. In the May 9, 2008 issue of Science, a team reported that they identified nine species of seaweed and marine algae recovered from hearths and other areas in the ancient settlement. The seaweed samples were directly dated between 14,220 to 13,980 years ago, confirming that MV-II was occupied more than 1,000 years earlier than any other reliably dated human settlements in the Americas. MV-I has been reportedly radiocarbon dated to 33,000 years before present, but like other sites with reported extremely early dates such as the Topper site in South Carolina, this deeper layer find remains controversial. The only human settlement site in Southern Chile of comparable age to Monte Verde is Pilauco Bajo dated to 12,500–11,000 years before present. Further south lies the Pali Aike Crater lava tube dated to 14,000–10,000 years before present.







Among the lithic tools recovered were round rocks the size of an egg, some of which could be useful as stones of a sling or bolas and a spike- shaped extended cylindrical stone that could have been used for drilling. Other recovered items included an odd stone devices with sheet shapes, including a nucleus and a chopper and two long lanceolate tip projectiles, similar to those known as El Jobo projectile tips found in the early scopes of Venezuela.







Rick Gore, of National Geographic, reported mammoth carvings in ivory dating between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago were found in bogs near Monte Verde, Chile in the 1990s. Since these artifacts were found so far from the Bering Strait (the route believed to have been taken by the first Americans), scientists believe that first people to migrate out of Asia arrived in Alaska perhaps 20,000 years ago. If they arrived later than that, they made their way down the west coast of the Americas to Chile relatively quickly.





Guitarrero Cave is a rockshelter in the Ancash region of Peru, where human occupations date to approximately 12,100 years ago. Fortuitous preservation has allowed researchers to collect textiles from the cave, dated to the Pre-Clovis component.




Wooden artifacts included a lance tip, digging sticks, three handles with scrapers mounted on them and three mortars. Timber was used in the construction of two different types of structures that were located in two different areas of the site. Small tree trunks were used to form the base of rectangular houses and thick rudely cut planks were arranged on the floor. The wooden framing was held in place with stakes. Vertical stems were placed every meter to frame the housing structure. In some of the fallen wood, traces of animal fur were found, suggesting that leather had covered the structure walls. The structures measured between 3 to 4.5 meters on each side. Inside the big tent, the 12 excavated rooms were joined on the sides and arranged in 2 parallel rows or lines. Within the structures were tools, plant remains and superficial or shallow impressions that were covered with clay that were used as fire pits as they still had evidences of fire residue. Apparently, the kitchen was a communal activity and took place around two big fires.


Separate and isolated from the rest of the structures was a very different type of structure located to the west end of the site. This U-shaped structure had a foundation of compacted sand and gravel. Vertical timber pieces or fragments were placed every half meter throughout both arms of the structure providing a wooden frame on which to fasten a leather coating or cover. A small platform protruded from the rear of the structure giving in more of a Y shape. The platform was approximately 3 meters wide and 4 meters long. The open front of the structure faced a small cleared area containing small hearths covered with clay. The clearing contained bits of animal fur, cane shafts and burnt seeds as well as various species of medicinal plants that were also burned. In the surrounding area of the structure and the yard was a hearth, timber piles, tools, medicinal plants and bones, including most of the mastodon remains found in the site. A chunck of meat had managed to survive in a bag, remains of the hunters’ last kill; DNA analysis indicated that the meat was from a mastodon. The site also yielded several human coprolites or ancient fecal material. It seemed obvious that the opening of the structure had been the focus or centre for special activities including hunting or a ritual celebrations, the preparation of medicinal herbs and maybe, the practice of the Shamanic cures. The structure was situated toward the front of another long structure that seemed to serve as the center for special social activities about which we know very little.




In summary, the overall appearance of the site and its structures was characterized by a network of timber foundations that outlined the external and internal walls of the tent, including in situ wedges and stakes and their supporting ropes and rush knots. The second structure was the foundation of the U or Y shaped structure formed by hardened gravel and sand where wooden planks that had supported the roof were fastened in an East West direction and with the door to the east.


The people of Monte Verde nomadically followed and hunted mastodons. They also hunted Camel and other minor animals. The collection of plants was equal to or more important that their hunting practices. In addition to wild potatoes, botanical remains included edible seeds, fruits, nuts, berries, mushrooms, algae, vegetables, tubercles and rhizomes. The flora was collected in the surrounding marshes, forests and in the Pacific shore allowing a diet enriched with iodine and salt. With the exploitation of a variety of ecological zones with a different growth regime, the inhabitants of Monte Verde obtained edible plants throughout the year enabling the site to be occupied year round. This model of a permanent, year-around residence is contrary to the more common idea of their being migrating and collecting hunters.





The research, in particular, shows people living as far south as Chile before it is clear that there existed an ice-free corridor through the vast North American glaciers by which people might have migrated south. In the depths of the most recent ice age, two vast ice sheets converged about 20,000 years ago over what is now Canada and the northern United States and apparently closed off human traffic there until sometime after 13,000 years ago. Either people migrated through a corridor between the ice sheets and spread remarkably fast to the southern end of America or they came by a different route, perhaps along the western coast, by foot and sometimes on small vessels. Otherwise they must have entered the Americas before 20,000 years ago.