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Planet Earth

The New Americans

By Shanti MenonJanuary 1, 1997 6:00 AM


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Down the plains swept the mighty hunters, slaying mammoths and bison with spears made lethal by carefully carved stone points. The hunters’ kill sites were discovered decades ago at Clovis and Folsom, in New Mexico. And for decades many archeologists believed that those hunters were not only the first Americans, but the ones from which all other native American cultures descended. After the Clovis culture appeared around 11,000 years ago, the scenario went, it spread down the Andes and into South America. Last April, archeologist Anna Roosevelt of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the University of Illinois presented evidence undermining this picture. The Clovis people, she says, had contemporaries--not descendants--in South America who led a very different life.

Roosevelt has been working in the Brazilian Amazon since 1983. Early on she heard about cave paintings and unusual stone tools. But many of the artifacts had been found out of context, and because they looked different from Clovis artifacts, many archeologists assumed they were a later development. Without agriculture, it was assumed, people would not have been able to sustain themselves in the rain forest. Roosevelt had no faith in those assumptions. In 1988 she set out to investigate a set of caves at Monte Alegre, in sandstone hills high above the lower Amazon floodplain, that she had first seen described by the nineteenth-century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace.

The day after she arrived at Monte Alegre, a local teacher and about 30 students led Roosevelt to the Caverna da Pedra Pintada--the Cave of Painted Stone. The paintings were striking: red and yellow handprints, stylized human figures, animals, and geometric shapes. Experts had seen them before but had assumed they were relatively recent. No one had bothered to dig at the site. In 1991, Roosevelt returned to excavate.

Over the past five years, she and her colleagues have turned up a mountain of evidence pointing to the cave’s occupation as early as 11,200 years ago--by humans who were contemporaries of the Clovis hunters but had little in common with them. The stone spear points Roosevelt has unearthed are stemmed and triangular, like the blades of butcher knives, and quite unlike the fluted Clovis points (which are shaped more like dinner knives). The Monte Alegrans used those points to spear not mammoths and bison but fish, rodents, turtles, and birds. Judging from the bones Roosevelt has found, some of the fish were nearly five feet long, suggesting they might have been speared from boats--she has also found woodworking tools. Finally, the remains of tropical fruits, Brazil nuts, palm seeds, and other plants are abundant at the site, most of them starchy, oily, and vitamin- rich. They didn’t have a hard living, Roosevelt says. But you see a very different subsistence pattern from big-game hunters.

The Monte Alegrans were different in spirit as well; the paintings prove that. Although the cave was occupied for a thousand years, Roosevelt found lumps of pigment and paint-splattered artifacts only in the oldest layer of occupation. That suggests the cave paintings were made 11,200 years ago. No paintings have ever been found at Clovis sites.

Some of Roosevelt’s peers have disputed her dating, arguing that Monte Alegre may be only 10,500 years old--just young enough to have been settled by Clovis people. Roosevelt finds that impossible. People in South America were not living in the same way as their contemporaries in North America, she says. We have to open our minds to different regions and adaptations. She believes the people of Monte Alegre, like the Clovis people, came originally from Asia but perhaps used a different migration route. The Clovis people were landlubbers, she says. The Amazonians took the coast road. From the coasts of Asia they crossed the Bering land bridge and came down the west coast all the way to South America. There, Roosevelt speculates, they followed the big rivers of Colombia or Venezuela into the heart of the Amazon Basin, into a region where people like them were not supposed to have survived.

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