Were Humans Really in America 100,000 Years Before We Thought?

The scientific community went into a frenzy this week over a new report claiming humans were in North America 130,000 years ago. Could it possibly be true? And why were people losing their minds?

Since the early sixteenth century, Europeans have referred to America as the “New World.” It was in their minds a place of discovery and opportunity, a new and young land ripe for inhabitation. But a new archaeological study is calling that into question.

An article in the prestigious magazine Nature claims to have uncovered evidence that proves that there were humans in North America as long as 130,000 years ago. Given that conventional scientific wisdom maintains that Homo sapiens colonized the Americas roughly 15,000 years ago, around the end of the Pleistocene era, this evidence promises to radically reshape the history of the Americas.

A team led by Steven Holen of the Archeological Institute of America analyzed material excavated in 1992-93 from the Cerutti Mastodon archaeological site in Southern California. In one layer of stream-deposited sediment, they found the remains of a mastodon, a now-extinct animal related to elephants. The bones of the mastodon, which were found in clusters associated with cobbles, possessed marks suggestive of battering by hammerstones. The ends of the bones were broken, which might indicate that the bones were deliberately broken in order to create access to the bone marrow contained therein. Other animals bones found in neighboring layers did not possess the same features.

Holen and his team suggest that the stones were used to break the bones. This raises the question: by whom?

Well, humans, of one kind or another. According to the coverage in Nature, “Rigorous uranium-series dating of the bones yielded an estimated burial age of 130,700 +/- 9,700 years ago, coinciding with the beginning of the wet and warm last interglacial period. The finds… could place hominins in the New World more than 100,000 years earlier than previously thought.”

It would be a paradigm-shifting discovery. It raises all kinds of questions—like, where did these hominins come from and what happened to them after they came here?

The problem is that the argument for human involvement is entirely indirect. The bones are real; the dating is accurate; but there are no humans at the site. This is why a number of prominent scientists have been calling the study’s findings into question.

What this discovery reveals is a very different kind of history: the racially charged history of “ancient man” claims in the New World.

In fact, as Jon Marks, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and author of the recently published Is Science Racist?, told me, “American archaeology has always been tied up with the politics of Native Americans—their history and identity.”

The first question that archaeologists asked in the 1830s was, who built the ancient monuments at Cahokia in the Mississippi Valley? Today Cahokia contains about 80 mounds, but in its prime the site was much larger. You might think that the question didn’t need answering: surely it was the Native Americans? At the time, this seemed impossible.

As Marks put it, “Assuming it could not have been the ancestors of the rude, impoverished, savages we were busily displacing and murdering, then who else could it have been? And of course, it was indeed their ancestors—which is the answer that crystallized American archaeology as a scholarly discipline.” The discipline of American archaeology was generated by a racist assumption that had political consequences. Scholarly efforts to dislocate indigenous people from the history of the land and, especially, their cultural contributions, serve to make indigenous people less indigenous. Whether deliberately or not, that refiguring of indigenous peoples is easily used to justify colonialization.

Interestingly, this impulse was paralleled almost exactly in later archaeological studies of the Great Zimbabwe, an 11th-15th century CE city, located near Lake Mutirikwe in Zimbabwe. When the amateur archaeologist J. Theodore Bent began to study the monument in the late nineteenth century, under the patronage of Cecil Rhodes, he argued that city was constructed either by the Phoenicians or by a Semitic people. By his third book he was arguing more precisely for “a Semitic race... of Arabian origin.”

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Over the course of the twentieth century, a variety of different groups were credited with the city’s construction. It was only in the 1950s that archaeologists began to recognize the now-consensus view that the Great Zimbabwe was built by Africans, but they were pressured by the Rhodesian government to alter their conclusions.

In the United States, the lightning rod in this conversation has been the racial identity of those people who are supposed to have pre-dated Native Americans. In Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture, Smithsonian archaeologists Dennis J. Stanford and Bruce A. Bradley argued that almost 15,000 years before native Americans arrived in the Americas from Siberia (approximately 13,000-14,000 years ago), the North West was populated by early Europeans.

Their argument is based on the similarities between American Clovis stone points and French Solutrean points. The similarities between the two were first noted in the 1970s, but scholars could not account for the chronological distance between the evidence, the lack of evidence for maritime activity during this period, and the absence of non-technological cultural transfer from France to the Americas.

The lack of evidence did not prevent Kyle Bristow, a lawyer and former Michigan State University student known for inviting white supremacists to speak at his college chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, to use the Solutrean hypothesis to author the novel White Apocalypse. The conceit of the book is that Solutrean culture was mercilessly wiped out by invading Beringians (the ancestors of modern Native Americans). The genocide of the ancient Europeans, we learn through the rogue anthropologist protagonist, has been concealed from us in a giant conspiracy. Bristow is now a lawyer who represents, among others, Matthew Heimbach, the head of the white nationalist traditionalist Youth Network, being sued for allegedly shoving a woman of color and calling her a “c**t” and a “n****r” at a Trump rally in 2016.

But I digress.

Scientists today almost exclusively reject the Solutrean hypothesis, but twenty years ago a variant on this hypothesis was used to argue that Kennewick Man was not Native American. The prehistoric remains of Kennewick Man, as he was known, were discovered along the banks of the Columbia River region in Kennewick, Washington in 1996. To the dismay of the anthropological community, he was initially racialized as a European and, against the objections of the local Umatilla people, his remains were removed for further study.

The archaeologists who initially worked on the bones, James Chatters and Douglas Owsley, argued quite forcefully that the remains were not Native American and thus unrelated to the Umatilla people. Chatters argued that the skull was “Caucasoid” and literally resembled Patrick Stewart. Owsley argued for Polynesian origins.

Kennewick Man was the focal point of a nine-year court case in which Native American tribes fought to gain ownership of the Kennewick Man (whom they referred to as ‘the Ancient One’). In 2004 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that because a cultural link could not be established between the remains and any of the Native American tribes, the scientific community could continue to study them.

It was only in 2015, when geneticists at the University of Copenhagen demonstrated that, among living peoples, the Kennewick Man is most closely related to the Native American tribes, including the Umatilla, that the question was settled. He has since been repatriated under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, but for nearly a decade scholarly claims about his racial identity were used to strip Native Americans of their cultural heritage.

It is not the case that the scientists performing the latest study, or any study on human origins, are racist themselves. Rather, it’s that this whole question is racially and politically loaded. Anytime a person makes the claim that there were people on a particular continent that predate the indigenous peoples encountered by later Westerners, they are making the kind of claim that, historically speaking, has been used to justify the subjugation of those people.

If there were people here before the Native Americans, that’s historically and anthropologically important information, but it has to be strongly supported. As Marks said, “This isn’t fruit-fly science…[It’s] a strong bio-political statement, and needs to have a firmer basis.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article erroneously credited Billy Roper, 2012 Presidential candidate for the Nationalist Party of America as the author of “White Resistance,” Roper’s comments endorsing the book to “White Nationalists" was actually an endorsement from the book’s inside cover.