The Clovis-First theory of human migration, a once widely accepted theory of human migration to the Americas, states that human inhabitation of the continent began between 12,900 and 13,100 years ago (Lovgren, 2021). A basic overview of the Clovis-First theory is that the Clovis people—named for Clovis, New Mexico, where lithics were uncovered in 1934—were the first to migrate to the Americas, coming over an ice bridge in Beringia during the later stages of the last glacial maximum. Over time, these mammoth hunters would disperse across the continent with their distinctive lithics being discovered at several archeological sites.
Though there is evidence to support the idea that Clovis people migrated from Asia (Gilbert, 2008), there is little evidence to prove that they were the first. Furthermore, over recent years the discovery of further sites around the country lends credence to the theory that many different groups of humans migrated to the Americas over several periods of time. Though there are many to choose from, I am going to examine only two different archeological sites, both of which predate the Clovis people.
The first site to catch my attention while I was researching dates back 18,000 years, in what is now Oregon. Back in 2012, archeologists uncovered teeth belonging to a—since extinct—species of camel, which had been buried by the eruption of Mount St. Helens over 15,000 years ago (Pettigrew, 2023). As the researchers dug deeper, they also discovered a blade which had bison blood residue on it; due to stratigraphic position, it is thought to be even older than the camel’s teeth. Upon carbon dating the teeth, researchers discovered that the teeth themselves dated back to over 18,200 years ago, confirming that this site pre-dates the Clovis peoples by over 4,500 years at the low end.
The second important site that caught my attention was Coopers Ferry, a site in Idaho dating back over 16,000 years. At Coopers Ferry, over 200 artifacts were found, including stone tools, lithics, and bone fragments (Davis, 2019). Based on the fact that an opening in the ice caps across Canada would not appear for up to another millennium, it is likely that the people of Coopers Ferry arrived from the Pacific (Wade, 2019). Further credence is given to this theory based on the position of the site along a river, where humans likely came upstream from the ocean. Due to those facts, Coopers Ferry and Rimrock Draw fundamentally contradict the Clovis-First theory, and redefine the dynamics of human dispersal across the Americas.
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Lizzie Wade, Ancient site in Idaho implies first Americans came by sea. Science 365,848-849(2019). DOI:10.1126/science.365.6456.848
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Goebel, T., Waters, M. R., & O’Rourke, D. H. (2008). The late Pleistocene dispersal of modern humans in the Americas. science, 319(5869), 1497-1502.
Gilbert, M. T. P., Jenkins, D. L., Gotherstrom, A., Naveran, N., Sanchez, J. J., Hofreiter, M., … & Willerslev, E. (2008). DNA from pre-Clovis human coprolites in Oregon, North America. Science, 320(5877), 786-789.
Hutcherson, E. (2023, July 15). Archaeologists find new evidence in southern Oregon that suggests human habitation 18,000 years ago. OBP.
Stastna, K. (2012, July 13). Clovis people not 1st to arrive in North America | CBC News. CBCnews. CBC.
Pettigrew, J. (2023, July 11). Possible proof of oldest human-occupied site found in Oregon, dating back over 18K Years. KOIN.com.
Lovgren, S. (2021, May 3). Clovis people not First Americans, study shows. Science. Article
Waters, M. R., Stafford Jr, T. W., & Carlson, D. L. (2020). The age of Clovis—13,050 to 12,750 cal yr BP. Science Advances, 6(43), eaaz0455.
Davis, L. G., Madsen, D. B., Becerra-Valdivia, L., Higham, T., Sisson, D. A., Skinner, S. M., … & Buvit, I. (2019). Late upper paleolithic occupation at Cooper’s Ferry, Idaho, USA,~ 16,000 years ago. Science, 365(6456), 891-897.
Fig 1: Waters, 2020
Fig 2: Hutcherson, 2023
Fig 3: Davis, 2019