First North Americans May Have Settled 17,000 Years Earlier Than Thought

Cutting-edge research has dated lance points at 17,000 years earlier than previously known to exist

By Jonny Lupsha, News Writer

New research suggests humans reached North America 30,000 years ago, LiveScience reported. A previous theory dating back several decades hypothesized that humans came to North America near the end of the ice age 13,000 years ago. An unearthed lance may hold the secret.

Clovis Points
To determine the approximate date of when North America was first settled, researchers examine lance points of human-made stone tools. Photo By W. Scott McGill / Shutterstock

LiveScience cited two new studies that defy a long-standing belief about the first humans who came to North America. “In one study, archaeologists analyzed a remote cave in northwestern Mexico containing human-made stone tools that are up to 31,500 years old, [which] would push back dates for human dispersal into North America as early as 33,000 years ago,” the article said.

“In the other study, archaeologists took already-published dates from 42 archaeological sites in North America and Beringia (the region that historically connected Russia and America) and plugged them into a model that analyzed human dispersal. This model found an early human presence in North America dating to at least 26,000 years ago.”

Another recent find—part of a lance that was discovered in Texas—supports the new studies.

Straight to the Point

Recently, a Great Courses professor presented exciting archaeological news in a short video—and the dig site is practically in his backyard.

“There’s new archaeology in Texas, a place just north of where I live in Austin, called Buttermilk Creek,” said Dr. Edwin Barnhart, Director of the Maya Exploration Center. “It’s a site called the Debra Friedkin Site. They’ve found the oldest ever lance points in all of North America.”

Dr. Barnhart explained that until now, lance points called “Clovis points” were the oldest lance points found on the continent. Clovis points are a specific kind of point used to hunt mammoth and mastodon and have been found all over North America.

However, the Debra Friedkin Site discovery contained 11 lance points that Dr. Barnhart said are markedly different from Clovis points.

“Clovis points are very, very distinct, especially because they have this flute coming up from the base where it hafts onto its spear,” he said. “The flute’s very, very difficult to make; as far as a flint knapper, you’ve got to be an expert to be able to knock the bottom of that point just right to make the flute. These earlier points—they’re calling them ‘Western stemmed points’—don’t have that flute and they don’t have the shape either.”

First Date

As the LiveScience article pointed out, Clovis points were previously used to date the earliest North Americans. Specifically, this “Clovis-first” model is “a decades-old hypothesis that early humans arrived in the Americas via Beringia as the last ice age was ending, about 13,000 years ago,” the article said. The new studies—and the Western stemmed point discussed by Dr. Barnhart—predate the Clovis-first model. In fact, the new studies predate Clovis-first by about 17,000 years. But how do scientists gauge their ages?

According to Dr. Barnhart, the archaeologists who discovered the Western stemmed points in Texas didn’t use the typical carbon-14 dating process like most scientists do.

“They were using a technique called Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL), which in my mind is a bit of an advance above carbon-14 dating,” he said. “That’s our regular way of dating things, but it can be easily contaminated. OSL is dating actual silica in sand, so it’s very hard to contaminate.”

Solving the mysteries of when humans came to North America helps us piece together prehistory and understand more about where we came from.

This article was proofread and copyedited by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.

Dr. Edwin Barnhart contributed to this article. Dr. Barnhart is director of the Maya Exploration Center. He holds a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin and has over 20 years of experience in North, Central, and South America as an archaeologist, explorer, and instructor.

About Jonny Lupsha, News Writer 526 Articles
Jonny is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Sterling, Virginia. He has written for The Great Courses since 2017 and enjoys studying the courses as much as writing about them. Contact Jonny at lupshaj@teachco.com