Looking Down the Ice-Free Corridor: Another Side of the First Americans Story

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on February 12, 2013 in Archaeology |

There are two sides to the story of the early peopling of North America, Stuart Fiedel has reminded me in a couple of recent emails.  Stuart’s detailed criticism of the data and interpretations of the Monte Verde site (Fiedel 1999) are sometimes cited as a significant component of the debate between the Clovis-First and Pre-Clovis positions.  Reading Guy Gugliotta’s recent Smithsonian article on this subject, it isn’t clear to me that Gugliotta actually interviewed Stuart for this piece (although he cited the old critique).  More significantly, without providing a more current perspective, the recent Smithsonian article arguably falls short of discussing the debate as it is now.

The same criticism applies to my recent discussion that includes coverage of Gugliotta’s article.  For example, I neglected to mention that close to home in the Hudson valley, there is a contested claim that Pre-Clovis hunters drove mastodons to local extinction (or at least pushed them close to the brink). Lothrop and Bradley (2012:36) find this “difficult” (as they say) “to accept” without independent evidence of a regional human presence before about 12,900 years ago.  In my brief defense, I did mention that the Dutchess Quarry Caves in Orange County, New York could have produced Pre-Clovis evidence— but didn’t.  With regard to the current evaluation of Pre-Clovis as presented in Smithsonian and elsewhere, Stuart has sent me several articles and papers that indicate that the debate is not only lively, but updates with the evidence.  As I told Stuart, I now have some more reading to do.

Despite all this, I still recommend Guy Gugliotta’s article highly as a very good, not overly technical synopsis of Pre-Clovis research.  It covers some of the major, current or recent archaeological projects, and the leading theories on the possible routes of entry of late Pleistocene, Old World people into the New World.  It doesn’t cover everything (including every major piece of Pre-Clovis research), but this is a fairly large subject, has many pieces of data under review, and involves a fairly intense, nuanced set of disagreements (hence, the growing literature both reporting and critical of Pre-Clovis archaeological sites).

At the same time, Stuart has reminded me of a very good article in Scientific American by Heather Pringle (November 2011; as mentioned in Fieldnotes November 9, 2011).  Pringle’s article also is highly recommended, and covers some different ground than the recent Smithsonian article.  Pringle brings into sharp focus the relatively short span of time from about 12,000-16,000 calendar years ago that is the subject of many of the discussions of available late Ice Age routes and associated, possible human migrations.  In doing so, Pringle addresses ongoing research within the Ice-Free Corridor (such as its age and possible human use or occupation).  And in covering current perspectives on the Ice-Free Corridor, Pringle interviewed Stuart Fiedel, who discussed the likely aspects of migration along this route at the inception of the Clovis era.

Given voice in Heather Pringle’s reporting, Stuart Fiedel helps us to envision Paleoindian views channeled down the corridor between the ice sheets—  images of migratory birds returning from a mysterious southland; signs of game animals to hunt ever southward; dog tails wagging up ahead of the human trekkers, man’s best friend leading the way, laden with packs of gear—  the human-canine pack moving perhaps as little as 16 kilometers a day before reaching, in just 4 months, the rich, grassy plains on the other side of the ice.

References Cited

Fiedel, Stuart J.
1999   Artifact Provenience at Monte Verde:  Confusion and Contradictions. Special Report:  Monte Verde Revisited. Scientific American Discovering Archaeology 1(6):1-12.

Gugliotta, Guy
2013  The First Americans. Smithsonian (February) 43(10):38-47.

Lothrop, Jonathan C. and James W. Bradley
2012   Paleoindian Occupations in the Hudson Valley, New York.  In Late Pleistocene Archaeology and Ecology in the Far Northeast, edited by Claude Chapdelaine, pp. 9-47. Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas.

Pringle, Heather
2011   The 1st Americans.  Scientific American (November) 305(5):36-45.

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