J. M. Adovasio has spent the last thirty years at the center of one of our most fiery scientific debates: Who were the first humans in the Americas, and how and when did they get there?
At its heart, The First Americans is the story of the revolution in thinking that Adovasio and his fellow archaeologists have brought about, and the firestorm it has ignited. As he writes, "The work of lifetimes has been put at risk, reputations have been damaged, an astounding amount of silliness and even profound stupidity has been taken as serious thought, and always lurking in the background of all the argumentation and gnashing of tenets has been the question of whether the field of archaeology can ever be pursued as a science."
Who got here first? That's the controversial question that has galvanized American archeology from its earliest days. The traditional view is that the first residents of the new world were the Clovis people, hunters who crossed the Bering Strait during the Ice Age, 10,000 years ago. Yet based on his own research, archeologist Adovasio launches a spirited attack on the Clovis theory. With co-writer Jake Page, a former Natural History editor, Adovasio explains his findings at a site called Meadowcroft in southwestern Pennsylvania. Two of the ancient tools from this dig were carbon-dated to 12,900 and 13,170 B.C., thousands of years before the Clovis lived. This discovery has thrust Adovasio into the center of the anti-Clovis movement. Adovasio weighs the Meadowcroft findings against the history of American archeology itself. He profiles seminal figures in the field as well as some cranky Clovis theorists, and reviews different theoretical approaches. He also explains the use of dating methods such as dendrochronology (counting the rings of trees) and lucidly discusses the natural history of the continent, with its glaciers and ancient megafauna. While these factors are relevant to the question of human habitation, Adovasio's very broad view somewhat dilutes the main story of the Clovis wars. There's also a note of bitterness and personal grievance in Adovasio's discussion of his pro-Clovis colleagues, which may turn off some readers.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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June 15, 2003
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Excerpt from The First Americans by James Adovasio
CHAPTER ONE GLIMPSES THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS When Christopher Columbus first slogged ashore on October 12, 1492, on either the Caribbean island of San Salvador or Samana Cay, he was met by Arawak-speaking people who called themselves Taino and who apparently made an excellent first impression. "They are affectionate people," Columbus reported, "and without covetousness and apt for anything, which I certify." He went on to write, "I believe there is no better people or land in the world. They love their neighbors as themselves and have the sweetest speech in the world and gentle, and are always smiling." Not knowing who these seemingly happy-go-lucky folk were, Columbus imagined them to be Asians-perhaps Hindus or Spice Islanders. Yet, despite his boosterism, he was disappointed to find these natives less advanced than he expected of Asians. In fact, the Tainos were fairly sophisticated agriculturalists living in villages of a thousand or more, each with up to fifty round, conical-roofed houses of wood and thatch ringed around a plaza and presided over by a chieftain. The villages were organized into district chiefdoms; two social strata, nobles and commoners, existed; and local artisans worked in wood, ceramics, weaving, and other crafts, including gold imported from mainland South America. Even so, they were hardly what might be expected by someone who had read about Marco Polo's travels to the Orient. Soon the neighbor-loving Tainos made it plain that their particular neighbors, known as Caribs and located to the south in what we call the Virgin Islands, were cannibals bent on wiping out the Tainos. Here we have an early version of two of the longest-running stereotypes about the native peoples of America-the noble savage and the bloodthirsty barbarian. Before many more years passed, both the Tainos and the Caribs (who were probably innocent of cannibalism) were largely extinct, victims of European diseases, the vicissitudes of Spanish enslavement, and outright murder. But untold millions of other native peoples awaited the Europeans in the New World, and once it became clear that this was not Asia, the questions soon arose: Who the hell are these people, where did they come from, and when did they get here? Even after the passage of more than five hundred years, the answers to these simple questions remain somewhat imprecise. Early on, some Europeans wondered if the native populations of the New World were actually people-humans, as Europeans defined the word. This was in spite of the fact that by 1510 Cortés had encountered the Aztec empire and entered its capital, Tenochtitlán, a vast city grander and more beautiful, by accounts, than anything in contemporary Europe. The Spanish thus had an early realization of the breadth of cultural diversity to be found in the New World, but even the Aztecs, with their own version of high society, did not fit well into the pigeonholes of European preconceptions. And it was only a few years after the Spanish arrival that even the Aztecs and Incas were reduced to peonage, their civilizations effectively razed. At the time, maps of much of the world outside Europe still reported that "there be monsters here," and stories abounded of creatures on distant shores who were part human, part animal. Unicorns could still appear to those whose lives had been perfectly meritorious, and as late as the next century an English adventurer, Martin Frobisher, would return from an Arctic voyage with tales of gold and with the single horn of what he believed to be a sea unicorn (an object we know as a narwhal tusk), which he presented to Queen Elizabeth. Coming upon the shores of America, one might imagine, then, that creatures with so little by way of the trappings of civilization were people, yes, but people without souls, just as animals were without souls. Paracelsus, the brilliant sixteenth-centur