About that 130,000 y.o. Human Occupation in California

A claim is being made, in a recent issue of Nature Magazine, that humans were active in the vicinity of San Diego well over 100,000 years before archaeologists think humans were even in the New World. Most commentary on this claim dismisses it out of hand, but out of hand rejections are no better than foundationless assertions. Let’s take a closer look at the Cerutti Mastodon Site. But first, some important context.

The Near Consensus on North American Prehistory

The Clovis Culture is a Native American phenomenon that occurred between about 12 and 10 thousand years ago (most likely between 11,500 and 11,000 uncalibrated radiocarbon years before present). Clovis_Point

The key feature of Clovis is the rather extraordinary “Clovis Point.” There is another, similar looking, point that goes with the Folsom Culture, which is about as old as the Clovis culture, but a bit younger, and there are a couple of other less common named forms. We refer to them all as “fluted points.”

Unlike some other so-called “projectile points” (many of which are knives or spearheads, many perhaps not even mounted in use) fluted points are rarely found in large numbers anywhere, but are represented over a very large region; They are found across the United Sates and Canada, and as far south as Venezuela.

There is almost no evidence suggesting that any humans existed in North America prior to Clovis times, and this has been known for years. Therefore, “Clovis culture” or more broadly, “Paleoindian” culture has long been thought to represent the first humans to come to North America. Since Native Americans physically resemble East Asians (an observation supported and refined by genetic analysis) it has always been assumed that Native Americans came from Asia as Paleoindians, or developed the Paleoindian culture right after arriving in North America. The dates of Clovis sites cluster into such a tight time frame that it makes sense to assume that these folks arrived on an unoccupied continent, spread quickly over a large area, and subsequently differentiated into diverse groups.

The idea of earlier, pre-Clovis, occupation has long been considered by the occasional daring archaeologist, and even the famous African archaeologist, Louis Leakey, suggested that certain finds in the vicinity of modern day San Diego represented much older human occupation. However, North American archaeologists remained firm on the idea that there is no pre-Clovis, and argued strongly and vociferously against the idea. Indeed, any archaeologist who wished to argue for pre-Clovis risked something close to professional censure, others were so sure about Clovis first.

For a very long time it has been at first quietly, and later less quietly, recognized that there are some problems with the Clovis-First hypotheses. First, even though one might expect the early dates for Clovis, if it represented a sudden and rapid colonization of a world with no humans, to be difficult to interpret, it became apparent that the earliest Clovis is in the far East of the continent, with later clovis being farther west. Recent interpretations of the data have suggested that this may not be true, but those interpretations are tenuous. Oddly, pretty solid dating evidence showing east coast Clovis to be earlier was always rejected as unimportant, while a much less clear argument that Clovis out west is early has been quickly and not very critically accepted, presumably because it fits the underlying assumptions of a sudden colonization from Asia.

Fluted points are way more common in the East, east of the Mississippi, in various Mississippi drainage valleys, and along the East Coast. They are relatively sparse in the west, say, on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, and they are very rare in Alaska. So, the distribution of fluted points is exactly the opposite of what one might expect with a simple model of Asians arriving in North America, suddenly becoming Clovis, then spreading from there.

Of the fluted points found in North America, the oldest style, Clovis, is mainly an Eastern phenomenon, with later styles, such as Folsom, are more in the West. If the so-called spatio-temporal boundaries of these styles is correct, and Clovis is older than Folsem, then it is very hard to argue that Clovis is a primary phenomenon that came out of Asia as the first thing people did in North America.

These observations together with the absence of Paleoindian culture in Asia strongly suggests that the actual history of people in North America prior to about 10,000 years ago was a little more complex than the usual textbook version. Indeed, Clovis would make a lot more sense if there was a pre-Clovis culture that did some or much of the initial spreading, followed quickly by the rise of a Clovis Culture among those people, perhaps in the east, which then spread across the continents very quickly. That would have simply been an early example of a phenomenon we see again and again in New World prehistory, where a material phenomenon of some kind, a type of projectile point, or a symbolic image, or something, spreads in what seems like an instant across a vast area.

Beginning mainly in the 1980s, a number of archaeological sites were discovered and presented as pre-Clovis. These are dated using various means. They occur across the US in Pennsylvania, Souoth Carolina, Oregon, Florida, Alaska, and elsewhere. They are also found in South America in Brazil, Chile, and Columbia. Most, perhaps all, of these sites — there are about 16 of them — are very strongly and forcefully argued to be real, and have varying degrees of evidence on them.

Most of the sites date to either just a thousand or two years, or sometime, just centuries, before Clovis and would easily fit into a pre-Clovis model as suggested above. This would go with the idea that somehow, humans arrived in North America, spread out, then popped out Clovis Culture soon after. Some of the sites are much earlier, but as far as I know, all the earliest sites have very questionable artifacts or dating that is not very secure.

I am not certain, but I think most of the North American archaeologists who so forcefully argued against pre-Clovis of any form have either moved off that position, stopped talking, or died off. Now, I believe, most North American archaeologists accept that there is a distinct possibility that there is what I would call a “near-Pre-Clovis.” But, since there are just over one dozen sites across two continents, one must be reserved in assuming this. Such a small number of sites could represent a small number of aberrant if well meaning interpretations of sites that have something wrong with them. I personally have excavated many, many archaeological sites, and I have seen things that can’t be explained. Personally, I think some of the late pre-Clovis sites are good. But, I would not be surprised if an all knowing alien with a time machine landed nearby and proved that I was wrong.

The CM Mastodon Site: Humans in the New World at 130,000 years?

The Cerutti Mastodon site is in San Diego County, California. The site was excavating in the early 1990s by a team from the San Diego Museum of Natural History. If you ever get a chance to visit that museum, do so. It is one of the many museums of Balboa Park, which also includes the famous San Diego Zoo.

3F9FD05F00000578-4447720-image-a-2_1493212011779The finds at this site include a juvenile Mastodon, Mammut Americanum, as well as dire wolf, horse, ground sloth, camel, and mammoth.

The site is dated using Uranium-thorium dating on the mastodon bone, to 130,000 +/- 9,400 years b.p.

A recent analysis of the site, just published in the journal Nature, claims that the bones show evidence of human modification, and that some stones also found on the site show evidence of having been used to modify the bones.

The modification suggested is the smashing of bone to extract marrow, and possibly, to make some flakes or otherwise modify the bone to make tools.

The authors of the paper suggest that there are, as commonly agreed by North American archaeologists, four criteria that a site must meet to be considered a candidate for early pre-Clovis human evidence:

1) archaeological evidence is found in a clearly defined and undisturbed geologic context;

2) age is determined by reliable radiometric dating;

3) multiple lines of evidence from interdisciplinary studies provide consistent results; and

4) unquestionable artefacts are found in primary context

They argue that all of these are met. From the abstract:

The CM site contains spiral-fractured bone and molar fragments, indicating that breakage occured while fresh. Several of these fragments also preserve evidence of percussion. The occurrence and distribution of bone, molar and stone refits suggest that breakage occurred at the site of burial. Five large cobbles (hammerstones and anvils) in the CM bone bed display use-wear and impact marks, and are hydraulically anomalous relative to the low-energy context of the enclosing sandy silt stratum. 230Th/U radiometric analysis of multiple bone specimens using diffusion–adsorption–decay dating models indicates a burial date of 130.7?±?9.4 thousand years ago. These findings confirm the presence of an unidentified species of Homo at the CM site during the last interglacial period (MIS 5e; early late Pleistocene), indicating that humans with manual dexterity and the experiential knowledge to use hammerstones and anvils processed mastodon limb bones for marrow extraction and/or raw material for tool production. Systematic proboscidean bone reduction, evident at the CM site, fits within a broader pattern of Palaeolithic bone percussion technology in Africa, Eurasia, and North America. The CM site is, to our knowledge, the oldest in situ, well-documented archaeological site in North America and, as such, substantially revises the timing of arrival of Homo into the Americas.

That the site is in a good geological context is apparently beyond question, as far as I know. The “refitting” referred to is where bits and pieces of one thing that was broken apart can be glued back together, showing that since the breaking event not much has moved around, which helps to argue that the site is not too messed up by geological processes. The dating seems good. Everything seems good.

Yay, an early site showing humans in North America way before we ever thought!

But wait, not so fast …

Why this site could be real, and other comments on the early Americas

Archaeologists have a conceptual problem with discontinuity. They don’t believe in it.

Say you are working in a previously unstudied part of the world (there are none, but pretend). You find a site with some pottery on it, and date the site to 1,000 years ago. In the same area, you find several sites, of various dates, from 1,000 years ago to 4,000 years ago, but they are all sites with chipped stone tools on them and no pottery. But then, you finally find another pottery bearing site. The pottery looks different, and the site was fairly deep down, so when you get your dates back from the lab and they are about 4,000 years old, you are not surprised.

And, now, you know that pottery using people lived here from 4,000 years ago to 1,000 years ago, right?

Wrong. It is possible that people showed up here with pottery, and left, leaving behind non-pottery using people, then came back later. Or, people moved here with pottery, or invented or were introduced to pottery, 4,000 years ago, then stopped using it for some reason, then pottery made a return, somehow, more recently. The problem is, most archaeologists will not accept that once something happens, it can unhappen, even though we actually do know of places in the world where pottery was brought there with the first people, then forgotten about or rejected for some reason, later.

So, here’s the idea. During warm periods, like the interglacial of roughly the age of the CM site, and the present, hominins tend to spread. Even the ones that like warmer regions, maybe not even humans, spread around during warm periods, and spread north. So, naturally, some of them get to the New World somehow, and these are them. They don’t even have to be chipped stone tool using humans. They could be bone breakers. They could be bigfoot! They could be anything.

Now, this may seem like a crazy idea, and it almost certainly is. But, the rejection of occupation as early as 130,000 years ago because we have no evidence of anything half that old requires that the new world can be occupied in only one way: something or someone shows up, then they never leave. This is in direct conflict with the known migrations of large mammals, many of which migrated either to the New World from the Old World, or the other way round, several times over that last 5 or more million years, and most of which do not exist in the place they migrated to now.

Why the Old World makes the CM site highly unlikely

I know an archaeologist who once said this. She said, teaching her class, that the discovery of a house structure at about 5,000 years ago (by the way, it might have been the house structure I discovered, which for a time was the oldest one in North America) tells us that by 5,000 years ago, Native Americans had a concept of building a house, like a wigwam, and the technology to do so. I once read an archaeological monograph that suggested that the presence in some 3,000 year old pottery of impressions of woven material show that by that time Native Americans could weave cloth. One textbook refers to the earliest fire in North America (several thousands of years back) indicating that we now knew that by that time, at least, Native Americans had fire and thus could possibly cook their food.

I’ve read and heard North American archaeologists say things like this over and over again. These statements assume that the first proto-Native American people to come to the new world, say as just-pre-Clovis people, must have arrived naked and technology free!

People in the Old World had chipped stone technology, whereby stones were used to break stones in a very systematic (and not too easy to learn) way to produce, ultimately, tools. Our ancestors had this technology before the genus Homo existed. In fact, it may be the case that our ancestors were stone tool chipping bipedal apes for as long before the rise of the genus Homo as after (this remains to be pinned down). Modern humans have existed on this planet for only a fraction of the time that hominins were making chipped stone tools. Until the abrupt and dramatic near perfect elimination of chipped stone technology in recent centuries, chipped stone tool technology was as much a part of human behavior and culture as walking on two legs was.

We know this because of all that Old World archaeology that has been done. Despite the limited understanding of world prehistory by many North American archaeologists, the truth is that a human (even a non-fully modern human) presence in the New World would have chipped stone tools with it.

If a creature was at the CM site with a culture that lacked chipped stone tools, but that used hammer and anvil stones to break up bone, it was an ape, not a hominin. It was Gigantopithecus, or something. Bigfoot! CM is potentially believable as a site if it occurred in a larger time horizon with definitive human evidence. In other words, a bunch of chomped up elephant bones down the way from clear unambiguous human occupation on a landscape with many sites of that date might be acceptable as a human site, but not this. Not just pounded bones with no other cultural manifestations.

Now, I want to add new rules to the ones listed above.

5) The artifacts have to include evidence of proper chipped stone tool technology, as this is a ubiquitous trait of Homo and proto-Homo

6) Among the chipped stone, there must be both flakes and pieces that are flaked, because many natural processes will produce one or the other (usually flaked pieces) without human engagement.

7) The flakes must exhibit many cases of clear striking platforms, the part where the flake is hit to make it fly off the parent rock, and those striking platforms must be mostly below 90 degrees angle, because that is the experimentally established difference between “natural” flakes (including those made by cars running over rocks and rocks falling off cliffs, etc.) and human made proper flakes.

8) If flaked bone is invoked as an artifact type, the flakes must be numerous and have the same low angle of percussion, and there must as noted above, also be stone flakes.

This is the underlying fact that must be understood by people considering the CM site as human. Humans bust up bones, but busted up bones in the absence of any other evidence of human activity does not constitute unquestionable artifactual nature. Ever.

Just to make sure that I was still up to date on bone breakage taphonomy, the study of how to interpret bone breakage, I asked Professor Martha Tappen of the University of Minnesota, a bone taphonomist, for her opinion about the site. She told me, “I would say that the breaks appear to be consistent with human breakage, but quite possibly other causes, too, such as backhoes and perhaps other scenarios involving trampling. Other evidence is needed to support the idea that people reached the new world at this early time.”

What really happened at CM

I spent a certain amount of time living among the elephants of the African Rain Forest. Well, OK, I wan’t actually “living among them” but I was living there doing archaeology and other things, and they were there too. In fact, I studied elephant movement and trial making, and in so doing, observed a lot of places where elephants tromp around.

Some of the elephants we observed in the Ituri (along with the afore mentioned Professor Tappen) which had been killed over the years by Efe hunters (they are the traditional elephant hunters of the region), died on or near regular elephant trails. Once an elephant is all butchered up or scavenged, I assume the living elephants walk around the remains, though in some areas they have been known to play around with the bones of the dead. But eventually, the bones get incorporated with the undergrowth and the sediment, and get trampled by the elephants. The elephants also trample rocks. I saw locations where the elephants walked a lot, including trails and one location where they had dug a cave to obtain sediment that they would eat, where there was so much elephant trampling of stone that most of the stone looked human modified.

CM site has several animals, including some large ones. Something about this site attracted animals that then died, but at one point were alive. This is a very common phenomenon in paleontology, and is not fully understood. It is very likely that the broken up bones and the seemingly modified stones look the way they do because huge multi-ton animals stepped on them repeatedly.

But what if …

I don’t want to rule out CM out of hand. I don’t want to do this because Archaeology is full of stuff that was ruled out by orthodoxy then later found out to be important or real, but data was lost because of the narrow mindedness of the narrow minded. I believe it is appropriate and necessary to reserve a part of our dogma for possibilities, evidence for things that we are pretty sure are not real but that have just enough credibility, just enough of a question, to allow for a later surprise. I would love to see more large mammal sites of the late Pleistocene excavated carefully to see what they look like. A program of exploration for and investigation of sites during and near the Last Glacial Maximum in the Western US is a good idea, and should yield some very interesting paleontological results. If there was some kind of a hominin running around then — which is very unlikely and indeed almost impossible to imagine — but if there was one, it would eventually be bumped into. Meanwhile, think of all the cool extinct animal stuff we would get to learn no matter what the human prehistoric story turns out to be!

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67 thoughts on “About that 130,000 y.o. Human Occupation in California

  1. Very interesting article. If I were a young person interested in hominin paleontology and/or archaeology I would be thinking: I wonder if I could get in on this; it’s exciting.

  2. When I was a little boy in Panama, I found shards of pottery in the jungle up a hill-side from Gatun Lake at Fort Gulick, Canal Zone. I collected the shards on a table-top in me and my brother’s bedroom. I could only speculate on how old the pottery was. I knew nothing about carbon-darting back then. Another time I found an olive-drab Army battery near the B.O.Q. (Bachelor Officers’ Quarters). I took it home into a dark closet in Quarters 32 and I experimented with watching a spark flash when I held a wire attached to one pole of the battery, near (but not touching) the other pole of the battery. The episode literally sparked my lifelong interest in science, because to me it was counter-intuitive that mere proximity between two objects should engender a sparking flash of light. When we got back to the States, I started experimenting with electric lights and tube-radios on up to the Grand Challenge of constructing an artificial Mind and now at http://cyborg.blogspot.com I record my work on Strong AI. Around 1995 the New York Times showed a photograph of Fort Gulick being turned into Fort Espinar by the Panamanians and I was sure I recognized the military housing where my Mentifex AI project had its empirical start. I asked a co-worker if she could read the faint number on the carport of the military housing, and she said, “32”.

  3. Greg
    I feel this needs further investigation.
    A larger look at the site to find any supporting evidence.
    To me the findings do have some credence.

  4. I have been reading your blog for years. It is my favorite. I have never commented before and I can’t wait to show this post to my husband. Thanks for all the thoughtful reasoning, intelligence and science that I love.

  5. “The one thing that I’m sure of is that there is a lot that we’re not sure of.”

    You sure about that?

  6. I’m still a skeptic. The interpretation could be correct. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This site is about five times as old as the next oldest site in the Americas with evidence of human habitation. Enough of the evidence is sufficiently ambiguous that at least for me, it doesn’t qualify as extraordinary.

    This find was briefly mentioned in a discussion thread on Martin Rundkvist’s blog. It was noted that one possible cause of the observed bone breakage is a bulldozer. I understand that this site was discovered by Caltrans excavators in the process of constructing a new highway in the area. We Americans have historically not been nearly as careful as Europeans about doing archaeological surveys first.

    To reach this location hominids would have had to make their way down the Pacific coast from Alaska. (Other routes are possible, but then as during the Ice Ages, getting past the Bering Sea would have been considerably easier than any alternative routes.) There should be other sites along the way that they visited, or left relatives behind. Where are they? Likewise, it is possible that this group died out and weren’t followed for another 100 ka or so, but the more groups there were, the less plausible this idea is.

  7. You said 3 criteria, when you list 4.

    Are 5-8 existing in all other sites right now?

    British gained technologies from the Romans that disappeared for a thousand years.

  8. “I’m still a skeptic”

    And it’s still a supportable position, for the reasons you specify. Real scientists, and they are real ones, accept that the findings are tentative, but the questions raised need answering, and the solidity of the find needs to be established, since even despite all those problems, if the evidence is solid enough, then que sera sera, the evidence is that humans were there 100,000 years earlier than thought.

    The hunt has to be the consequences of that. There should be other evidence,evidence of the migration, or evidence of why it was a non-stop traverse.

    And surmises about whether there’s a mormon intent to prove joseph right(ish) about early civilisation in the USA, just muddling it up with being Jews (not Space Jews, though, thankfully, he wasn’t quite that nuts, it takes an internet to get that level of nut) may be encountered by the suspicious.

  9. Mike: The first four are from the original paper. Then I added my others. No idea why I said three, I’ll fix that!

    Criteria 5-8 are true generally for prehistoric sites around the world.

    Yes, technologies did disappear, as I mention, such as pottery. But until chipped stone was actually replaced, it was a species-typical character.

    Eric and Wow, I don’t know a single archaeologist or taphonomist who considers CM to be a human site. In my post I give it more of a benefit of the doubt than anyone else I’ve seen, and I am pretty sure it is not a human site.

    I should mention, considered it, but didn’t because the post was getting long, that this is not the first site that people saw non-artifacts in and claimed them to be artifacts. I mention that there are about 16 pre-clovis sites that are possibly good. There are several more that are not good.

    I suppose these could have been elephant eating Mormons, though.

  10. I’ve always wondered about the distinction of different cultures by a study of their stone tools. It would seem to me that a person skilled in the making of single-edged stone tools would have no great difficulty in deciding to make it a bifacial tool instead. Is it thought that an advance in stone technology (such as the Clovis points) is as singular an event as a genetic mutation? Or is it ever thought that such an advance in technology could have had multiple innovators hitting on the same kind of invention, so that some similar form of it may arise at different places and different times without there necessarily being contact between the groups?

    Good article, Greg.

  11. There seem to many archaelogical sites that pre-date Clovis for them to be the first settlers. There’s also the DNA evidence that would indicate the earliest ancestors probably arrived around 20,000 years ago. From Genomic evidence for the Pleistocene and recent population history of Native Americans

    Using three different methods, we determined the divergence time for all Native Americans (Athabascans and Amerindians) from their Siberian ancestors to be ~20 ka, and no earlier than ~23 ka. Furthermore, we dated the divergence between Athabascans (northern Native American branch, together with northern North American Amerindians) and southern North Americans and South and Central Americans (southern Native American branch) to be ~13 ka.

    If CM is evidence of human occupation, it was likely brief and died out. Lost in a storm at sea and shipwrecked? The odds of finding archaeological evidence of a single instance like that would have to be astronomical. But if the population grew much larger, then other evidence should have been found.

  12. If CM is evidence of human occupation, it was likely brief and died out. Lost in a storm at sea and shipwrecked?

    Boats in the Eemian?!

  13. They didnt ave boats.That’s why they drowned in a shipwreck.

    Seriously, though, the boat isn’t too hard a thing to invent.Wood obviously floats.
    The harder bits are having a society that can sustain boat builders and organisation to use boats to migrate.

  14. Seriously, though, the boat isn’t too hard a thing to invent.Wood obviously floats.

    Boats suitable for freshwater or near-shore use would indeed be relatively easy. Boats suitable for operating well offshore take a bit more know-how. Once out of sight of land, you would need to know a fair amount of astronomy in order to navigate. You would need to have, at minimum, language with which to communicate, and writing would be a great help. Even then, knowing how far east or west you would have to travel to reach the shore is a hard problem; the earliest solution we know of to the problem is Harrison’s clock in the 18th century.

    The Yayoy people of Japan, who are believed to be the ancestors of the modern Ainu, developed pottery without first developing agriculture (the only known culture for which this was the case). They could do it because they derived most of their protein from fish, which prior to modern times were abundant in the waters near Japan. But I don’t know how far offshore they had to venture to obtain their fish.

  15. Ann K: “I’ve always wondered about the distinction of different cultures by a study of their stone tools. It would seem to me that a person skilled in the making of single-edged stone tools would have no great difficulty in deciding to make it a bifacial tool instead. Is it thought that an advance in stone technology (such as the Clovis points) is as singular an event as a genetic mutation? Or is it ever thought that such an advance in technology could have had multiple innovators hitting on the same kind of invention, so that some similar form of it may arise at different places and different times without there necessarily being contact between the groups?”

    Good question.

    Bifacally worked objects were actually among the very first stone tools made, as “oldowan choppers” are often bifacial. Acheulean hand axes, which go back to close to 1.8 mya, are bifacial.

    The big cognitive change in stone tool working, likely the best candidate (since the beginning) of something having the kind of mind difference that may require a deeper biological shift, is probably the prepared platform. We see the beginning of the prepared platform associated with the earliest other proto-modern-human stuff (though not every one agrees with this exactly) and we see the fancier and more regular use of the prepared platform associated, similarly, with other likely big deal changes.

    The prepared platform is where the knapper does things to the stone that is about to be whacked on, sometimes very sophisticated things, in order that this one carefully aimed blow causes a result that you could never, or not easily, get had the platform been prepared. Among the most extreme examples is the Levallois technique. In this method, a very carefully selected stone piece is flaked as much as 20-40 times or so (sometimes much less, depends on the piece). As many as a dozen flakes make one side of the stone a deep bowl shape, a similar number of flakes, perhaps, to make the other side a shallow bowl shape, then a bunch of tiny flakes at one spot at the juncture of the two bowls to form a nibbie that is said to resemble the hat of a French policeman. Then, one single hard strike on the nibbie, at just the right angle, and off comes an oval or triangular or elongated piece of a specific, pre-determined and desired piece, a piece of a shape that would not be possible to reliably produce using any other method.

    This is thought to require something close to fully human level planning and thinking, and it is very hard to do and learn, so it requires, to some, very human level teaching and learning.

    The creatures we tend to think of as fully modern if a bit archaic totally had this technology starting at an unknown time somewhere between a half million years ago and 250,000 year ago (roughly 340,000 ???? or a tiny bit later, IMHO).

  16. Kevin (#15)

    There seem to many archaelogical sites that pre-date Clovis for them to be the first settlers.

    As I noted, there are hardly any, any number of them could be bogus or misinterpreted, but the pattern of the Clovis evidence itself screams out for something existing just before it, for a few centuries at least.

    There’s also the DNA evidence that would indicate the earliest ancestors probably arrived around 20,000 years ago. From Genomic evidence for the Pleistocene and recent population history of Native Americans

    The overall result of the analysis is fine but it simply does not speak to the geography of where it all happened, and we, in my opinion, are confused and in the dark as to the nature of the OW-NW crossing/walk that must have happened.

    Given that by this time in other parts of the OW humans had water craft, I don’t need much of a land bridge, for example.

    If CM is evidence of human occupation, it was likely brief and died out. Lost in a storm at sea and shipwrecked? The odds of finding archaeological evidence of a single instance like that would have to be astronomical. But if the population grew much larger, then other evidence should have been found.

    Indeed. And there should be flakes stone tool technology somewhere, even if not on this site.

  17. Eric, #18:

    Boats suitable for freshwater or near-shore use would indeed be relatively easy. Boats suitable for operating well offshore take a bit more know-how. Once out of sight of land, you would need to know a fair amount of astronomy in order to navigate. You would need to have, at minimum, language with which to communicate, and writing would be a great help. Even then, knowing how far east or west you would have to travel to reach the shore is a hard problem; the earliest solution we know of to the problem is Harrison’s clock in the 18th century.

    Boats are a big problem. All the usual assumptions, which in my experience often come close to fisticuffs at bars at anthropology meetings, simply fail to explain too much of prehistory to be believable. It is hard to accept early water craft, but there must have been early watercraft.

    Having said that, it may well not have been watercraft that went very far out to sea. But, consider this: The very likely use of boats to forage in off shore large water environments and water craft sufficient to end up on a nearby island is inferred for several places far from each other around the world some time between 5K and 10K, including near the earlier part of this range in the US East coast. It is even possible to imagine it for Ishango, 100K, since the harpoons could go nicely with boats.

    Australia was occupied over 40K, islands in the Med over 100K.

    Boats are really bad a leaving remains. I’ve done a lot of work with ancient boats. I don’t trust boats to tell us much about their origin. But since they are firmly documented at ca 3-7K everywhere, reasonably inferred many places for much earlier dates, I have no problem thinking that coastal and large lake boats, and river craft, were in the human tool kit possibly as far back as the whole LSA/Upper Pal.

    So, OW humans in boats along the shore in East Asia is simply not a leap for me. More of an assumption.

    Evidence of marine settlement that might include evidence of boats is hard to come buy given se level rise, of course.

    The Yayoy people of Japan, who are believed to be the ancestors of the modern Ainu, developed pottery without first developing agriculture (the only known culture for which this was the case). They could do it because they derived most of their protein from fish, which prior to modern times were abundant in the waters near Japan. But I don’t know how far offshore they had to venture to obtain their fish.

    Well, they may or may not have had to venture off shore to get to Japan, depending on when they moved there!

    Anyway, pottery pre-agriculture is now known across East Asia, and Africa, and places in between. It is not clear what was happening in NA. The earliest NE “Woodland” pottery predates corn and other documented horticulture by thousands of years, but is closer to farther away but plausibly meaningful Chenopodium use, but there is no direct evidence linking that pottery to that practice to my knowledge.

    I have not checked the early Brazil pottery. I always thought is suspicious. That would be pre ag, probably, if it real.

  18. Greg

    The creatures we tend to think of as fully modern if a bit archaic totally had this technology starting at an unknown time somewhere between a half million years ago and 250,000 year ago (roughly 340,000 ???? or a tiny bit later, IMHO).

    People talk about ‘anatomically modern’ humans having been around for ~200ka. Is this now an obsolete view? Or what was doing the prepared platform knapping ~500 – 250ka? I’m quite confused about this now 🙂

  19. ” Once out of sight of land, you would need to know a fair amount of astronomy in order to navigate”

    Not necessarily, the australasian boat people were deep ocean sailors a hell of a lot earlier than we thought, and they may not have required much in the way of astronavigation, following migrating birds and the currents, then watching for land-present clues (like high level stationary clouds from orographic lift).

    But these ones needn’t have gone far offshore to get to California. the Malaysians hadn’t much choice, being on an island….

  20. Greg, you say ‘generally true’. My reason for asking was I won wondering if you are picking criteria that would exclude this site, that would also exclude others that are considered valid, making the criteria invalid.

  21. BBD it is getting old and older. There are behavioral indicators that arise some time between 500K and 300K that may be a better marker than any skulls found anywhere. The existence of a very modern skull is a way late estimate for when that subset of hominids came on the scene.

    Herto Bouri is 195K. I’ve seen a skull, unreported, that looks just like Herto Bouri that had elements ESR dates to over 300K but the skull was not found in a good context (the attic of a local town hall). I tend to think that if we make the definition anatomically very strict, we will have to put fully modern humans at ca 125K to leave out all the somewhat robust ones, but that the timing will eventually settle into the 0.5 – 0.3 mya time range.

    MikeN, first, archaeological simply don’t work that way. In archaeology, wrt sites, artifacts, material cultures, all of it, we have a concept called the “polythetic set” (a term rarely used, a concept uses all the time).

    For example, you can have traits A through E that represent an archaeological thing. I find something with A, B, C. That is the thing. Then I find a B, C, D, E example. that is the thing. Then I find a D,E. Still the same thing.

    But what do we say, then, about the distinction between the version with traits A,B and C vs. the thing with traits D and E?

    In any event, these traits of a site are not even close to that wishy washy. Despite a history that goes back to 1924, there is no osteodontokeratic culture, no culture that has only bone and lacks chipped stone, on this planet. A given site can lack chipped stone (though that is amazingly rare) but a no-chipped-stone site floating in a 100K year time period with no evidence from chipped stone at all is not a human site.

  22. #14 & Greg: It occurred to me that tool-making may have become ritualized because of its importance and therefore may have been more resistant to change than a purely technological process, if that’s the correct words to use. Is that something archaeologists take into account or just a stray thought on my part?

  23. Tyvor Winn,

    It’s Luddites, all the way down…

    Seriously, though, why would the economic factors working against innovation be any different then from what they are now?

    I don’t think “ritual” in the religious sense is necessary to explain the reluctance of the craftspeople to abandon something that took effort to lean and has served them well.

  24. It’s easier to remember and pass on if it’s pushed as a ritual. Rote remembering is cheaper intellectually than remembering how it works, and ritualising the situation increases the difference.

    It also allows mistakes to happen yet retain the position of infallibility:they did it wrong.

    A feature continued even today. See Steve Jobs.

  25. #28: In addition to Wow’s point (#29), (1) It seems reasonable to me that in ancient societies, religion would have been a much more fundamental part of life than it is in most people’s lives today. After all, natural phenomena were without any naturalistic explanation so rituals would have been important throughout life. (2) Ancient peoples weren’t living in a modern economy. Tool-making would have been a life and death matter and labor (labour if you prefer) intensive as well. A sort of riff on “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

  26. Tyvor: “#14 & Greg: It occurred to me that tool-making may have become ritualized because of its importance and therefore may have been more resistant to change than a purely technological process, if that’s the correct words to use. Is that something archaeologists take into account or just a stray thought on my part?”

    For the million and a half years of its use, we are probably talking about organisms that had no rituals, so no there.

    The making of specific types of stone tool products does seem to have indeed been ritualized in some (but not all) cultures, but I’m not sure what the positives and negatives of that may have been. What archaeologists look at is a related thing, not too different but not the same as ritualization, and that is the role of style and meaning. That is the only thing many archaeologists think of!

  27. Wow:”It’s easier to remember and pass on if it’s pushed as a ritual. Rote remembering is cheaper intellectually than remembering how it works, and ritualising the situation increases the difference.

    It also allows mistakes to happen yet retain the position of infallibility:they did it wrong.

    A feature continued even today. See Steve Jobs.”

    The process of how stone tool manufacture is passed on is increasingly interesting to archaeologists.

    Here’s the thing: When we use the word “ritual” as zebra implies, we are probably talking about a cultural process that is not quite the same as what we used to call in the old days “technics” or how things are done.

    Stone tool manufacture can be hard, and it is often rote. That may not be the same thing as ritualized, as ritualized often means fetishized or a process where the process itself detaches from the function and can then not only be maintained conservatively but also it can shift and wander in one direction or another.

    If the details of making a stone tool wander in any one direction or another, you hit your thumb. End of ritual.

  28. Well, I kind of consider “ritual” to be “window dressing” that doesn’t actually get the work done, but either is SAID to do so (whether knowingly or not) and is kept because it’s part of “the way we do things ™”.

    Naming ceremonies are ritualised, because the rest of the kerfuffle is all about the window dressing of “You’re now called ‘ Derek ‘ “.

    So things like doing it in the same place all the time is ritual *if it is considered part of how it works*.

    The reason why this helps in memorising, even rote memorisation, is the reinforced repetition of the same act that is a trigger to the associated next step, which may be part of the actual necessary parts of the job, or not.

    So I don’t really mean ritual as in praying and chanting, though they obviously count, but anything that is included as part of how the thing is done when it’s got nothing to do with it, but is passed on as if it is as central to the process as anything.

    Yew wood has to be properly cured and if you’re making composites the processes need to be caught at the right times in the right order with the right things in the right weather conditions. And rituals can help with the timing, and thereby be “part of the process”. So there’s cases where there’s considerable overlap.

    Something as simple as “count to ten before you speak when angry”. We ritualise the counting as a mechanism to help us to wait and not blurt the first thing in reaction.

    But the ritual is helpful in so many ways in making things easier to follow. They’re simplistic and meaningless to the job in hand, but they can trigger the memory of the actual process. They can excuse failure too. How many times has a teacher of some art or task made a mistake and, even jokingly, said “I did that to show you what happens when it goes wrong”? And that can lead to the iPhone users being told they’re holding it wrong and that the phone is fine, the user is at fault.

    But it doesn’t have to be mystical mumbo jumbo to be ritual, at least not in the post where I talked about rituals above. It’s just the longest surviving and widest application of rituals.

  29. Tyvor, I think that ancient cultures were more about animism than religion as we understand it, and that it’s only the rarified sophistication of our extensively modified religions today that make us assume that the animism of all cultures means religious faith is the default state of humanity.

    It’s not. The basal cause is the investment of intent and choice in all actions in nature that has since been rarefied into the faiths of today, and the default state of humans is (at least after “the terrible twos”) is animism. At two years old, ish, we go from ourselves seeing action and reaction and ourselves as the only person in the world (those other things appear to act based on our desires. We are hungry and those things then feed us. Clearly they are just bits of us to go and do the heavy lifting), and it’s the realisation that we’re not the only human in the world and these other things aren’t extensions of our will, but have wills of their own, that leads to the tantrums and noise. We’re working out that these other things are separate beings like us with different and often contrary goals to our own.

    And then after that, we impart intent to everything. The wind CHOOSES to blow our book out of our hand or hinder us in our coat.

    And from that we then intuit that there’s an invisible powerful being we can’t talk to normally that is “the wind”.

    That then gets changed over millennia to an entire faith, because it gets passed on as a whole dump of assumptions about what is doing the CHOOSING in making the wind blow.

    But the faiths build on the animism that is general among humans, it’s not faith or religion that is general among humans, that has to be taught.

  30. #31 & 35: I was stimulated by Ann K’s post (#14) to think about the topic and I thank you for your comments. It’s very useful to get some other views.

    Ritual identification in an early form seems very difficult to pin down. When I was looking into Neandertal history a few years ago when I was teaching Historical Geology, there seemed to be some evidence but not compelling evidence for their burial of the dead at least on occasion and some aspects of the supposed burials raised a possibility of some associated ritualistic behavior.

    But the supposed burials could also have been a cave housekeeping matter to avoid bad smells or attracting dangerous scavengers. For Cro-Magnons the evidence was better for intentional burials (including grave goods) and, again, a possibility of associated rituals.

    Animism would, to me, make it more likely that there would be some ritual to making important artifacts out of stone, bone, or even wood. It would be important to keep on the good side of whatever spirits inhabited each of those materials.

    I’m only thinking of a ritual as being a series of steps to be done in order, for example how to choose, hold, and shape a stone, how to utilize the grain of it, etc. and not anything like a Christian communion, the Jewish passover, etc. Or it could just be a matter of learning by imitation.

    The tricky part, as always, is how to test the different hypotheses and there I’m out of ideas.

  31. Thoughts don’t fossilise. Intent is not a part of an artifact.

    So, yeah, kinda difficult.

    I would draw the line further, though, and put ritual as the rote activities that isn’t necessary. More like ceremony. But there’s no line demarcation as I said. There are some ways rituals are a method to achieve the correct outcome. Singing as a timekeeping device, for example. The actual singing is not germane to timing, but it’s a very good way to keep the correct timing, See “Hudson Hawk”.

  32. #37: Good points. And if you add words to the song that describe the actions needed in their proper order, you would keep time and increase the liklihood of remembering all the needed steps. This, of course, presupposes a more advanced linguistic capability than the earliest toolmakers are likely to have had but perhaps not those of Cro-Magnons & Neandertals and their lesser-known equivalents of perhaps 40-30kya or so.

  33. Well maybe not that young, even. Music relies on fulfilling an extended present. You “know” what the next note is going to be and rhythm is supported when that expectation is satisfied, arrythmic or syncopation relies on refuting the expectation and causing a mild jarring of the listeners’ mental process.

    And that occurs quite low down in our brains, so is likely quite old.

    Adding lyrics to pass on actual information is going to be AFTER linguistics, but rythmic chanting or just making repetitive sounds to a tempo and structure (e.g. music) doesn’t demand language skills.

    Even the librarian of the UU goes “Oook, ook, ook” when looking for something, to remind them what they’re looking for in a subconscious act.

    Of course librarians are the highest form of life on the planet, as any fule kno.

  34. #40, re: “Adding lyrics to pass on actual information is going to be AFTER linguistics”

    Yes, I was trying to say that. And there is no reason that I know of that earlier versions may have existed as you describe that lacked detailed instructions but were still useful.

    Some rock types make much better stone tools than others and step t of toolmaking might be considered the selection of the best available type. A few words might save a lot of trial and error for a newbie at the task.

  35. Sorry, I meant: “no reason that I know of against the existence of earlier versions as you described …”

    I had too many negatives in the original and it even confused me.

  36. Well, it’s common when running a streamofconsciousness post you get so involved in the current words of the sentence you don’t retain the context of the earlier part. Just means you’re involved in what you’re writing.

  37. #43: I wish I’d thought of that, it sounds a lot better than my explanation. Thank you very much.

  38. been there, done that.

    Also if you ever find yourself thinking you’re having a “senior moment”, remember that you probably did the same thing when you were a kid. You’d get up, rush upstairs to do something, forget what it was, but at five your attention span has expired and you’re making a different reason to go upstairs, and don’t notice the forgetfullness. So the only difference between then and when you’re 65 and not rushing up the stairs is your attention span and energy level.

    The nice thing about these is they’re almost definitely true. But you only note the issue when you remember the issue and are worried you’re getting old and senile. So when you were middle aged, unless you were unusually self-aware, you probably never noted it and forgot it, at least in the ensuing years.

  39. That it might have been the second migration who did it? Honestly doesn’t change much for the Megafauna, they still dead.

  40. #45: FYI: I happened to have a 2010 Historical Geology textbook by Harold Levin handy and in it the two only hypotheses mentioned were (1) changes in seasonality and vegetation related to global warming and (2) overkill by humans.

    As far as I know (from my slightly out of date knowledge) there is no compelling evidence for either, although neither can be ruled out. The textbook author’s comment was that “many scientists today favor a synthesis of the two concepts.”

    That combination-of-bad things idea is similar to what seems to be the emerging consensus regarding the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period, with the impact of a large e. t. body providing the coup de grace rather than the main cause.

    Progess in determining the cause or causes of particular mass extinctions seems to be at the point in a detective story when, with several chapters to go, there are still suspects but not enough evidence to convict anyone. In Agatha Christie’s “Murder On the Orient Express, all the suspects did the deed in a collaborative effort. Maybe that’s the solution to at least some mass extinctions.

  41. #48 spoiler alert!!!!!
    Shit mate! Orient Express has been
    on my reading list for ages.
    Ah well. Not a big deal in the scheme of things.

  42. Sorry about that. I certainly should have had a warning or at least not given the exact reference. I just added that little comment as a stream-of-consciousness afterthought and pressed Submit.

    There’s been at least one movie (1974) and a tv movie (more recently) of the story. At least I didn’t reveal the motive and how the sleuth catches on to what happened, so you might still enjoy reading the book and/or watching the movies, as I did.

    Ms Christie is known for the variety of her endings, covering pretty much all the basic possibilities.

  43. Humans do seem likely to be implicated in the megafaunal extinctions at the beginning of the Holocene. Take the woolly mammoth – appears about 400kya (after MIS11) but does *not* become extinct during the interglacials at MIS9, MIS7 and MIS5. So what was different about MIS1 (Holocene?). Yup, you guessed it.

  44. Yes, Good point. I remember reading some about that and other coincidences in timing. Human hunting and other involvement (grass fires perhaps) seems a reasonable hypothesis to me too, but it’s not my field so I hold to no firm conclusions but await the results of others’ scientific studies.

  45. #52 The Christie plot seems to have served well
    to illistrate your point. So I completely understand you
    using it. I would have done the same.
    Ive read six Christie books so far and enjoyed them all.
    As you say, you didnt let on motive and thats a biggie. So
    theres lots to look forward to in Orient.
    Thanks for response.

  46. About the megafauna extinction:

    I’ve followed this closely for years, almost wrote my thesis on it. I was going to compare the expansion of H. erectus and modern humans, an extinction was part of that.

    The relationship between humans and fauna is not simply hunting the fauna. There are many other possible relationships. Simply having domestic dogs could cause some extinctions. Humans removal of deadly super predators can possibly cause devastation for the herd animals the predators rely on. In other words, this is not necessarily a matter of over hunting.

    Any of several possible ways to depress megafauna populations is possible, and all of them could be possible at once.

    Keep in mind that not all the megafauna is extinct. Look at the megafauna that is not extinct, as a subset of those that are extinct, and consider the differences. There may be some answer there.

    We actually do not really know the exact timing of the extinction of each element of the megafauna, but it does look like many of the New World megafauna went extinct each Glacial Maximum, with a few species going extinct each time. So, if we start out with 20-something megafauna elements, and anywhere form zero to a few go extinct every glacial, with somewhat more going extinct with the more severe glacials (the last five were more secure than the previous 18, the first several probably had no effect) then we have most of the mammals that were extant in the Pliocene, essentially the fauna that emerged during the Age of Mammals (the Miocene), gone before humans ever arrive in North America. Whether those humans then wiped out the last few of those that were wiped out (leaving a few species to still exist), is an interesting question, but there is no doubt that most of the megafauna present at the beginning of the Pleistocene went extinct without help from humans.

    Probably.

  47. Greg

    About the megafauna extinction:

    Agree with what you say, but just to note that ‘the’ megafaunal extinction(s) we are talking about are different. I was speaking only of those at the beginning of the Holocene.

    I agree that the attrition of species during the increasingly severe glacial maxima after the MPT prolly climate not us. No doubt that the descent from Pliocene warmth into the Pleistocene icehouse took its toll. For sure.

  48. #56
    “…but it does look like many of the New World megafauna went extinct each Glacial Maximum, with a few species going extinct each time. ”
    This feels intuitivly correct at the same time as intuitivly incorrect.
    An odd feeling indeed!
    I bow to whatever hard evidence suggests.

  49. #58: It reminds me of earthquake damage due to repetitive earthquakes. Even if no single shock of a certain magnitude could cause complete failure, the cumulative effect of several can. Metal fatigue is similar.

  50. ” If there was some kind of a hominin running around then — which is very unlikely and indeed almost impossible to imagine — but if there was one, it would eventually be bumped into. ”

    I don’t get that reasoning, other than a current paucity of archaeological evidence. Hominins were in East Asia by at least 1.5 million years ago. Since then tens of glaciations have occurred, and my understanding is that land mammals have made the trip between Asia and America over that timespan. So, hominins populated the globe from South Africa to Europe to East Asia. There is even some evidence of possible seafaring from Mediterranean islands. But America was a Beringian land bridge too far?

    I find it very easy to imagine a hominin in America. In fact, it seems more puzzling to me as to why they didn’t make the trip with other land mammals given their apparent wanderlust. Part of the reason Clovis-first dominated the peopling of America for so long was that archaeologists just stopped digging at the Clovis layer.

    1. The reasoning you use is reasonable! The counter argument is the lack of evidence where there really should be evidence, combined with the fact that what is presented here as evidence is known to have other much more likely explanations.

  51. I believe the total number of H. Erectus skeletons found anywhere are on the order of 50 after decades of dedicated searching from China to Africa. It seems a little early to have a lot of confidence that absence of evidence is necessarily evidence of absence.

    Just in the last couple of years Aboriginal genes were found to be present in native South Americans but not in native North American populations, which is quite the mystery. Momentum is building for the hypothesis that North America was actually populated from the south via Central and South America after the ice sheet retreated from the last glaciation. If the initial peopling was via seafaring down the Pacific coast, all bets are off on near-Clovis being the final word.

    I’ll be surprised if the peopling of America doesn’t get a lot more complicated in the next few decades with the dates getting pushed back. Just how far remains to be seen. Replacement and extinction may possibly be part of the story.

  52. OK, where did you get that belief from?

    Because as far as I recall, that is the number of COMPLETE skeletons.

  53. Given it’s the telegraph, it’s probably the reporting rather than the scientists. I’d go with “not” as the headline puts it, but it could be that the paper shows the earliest form of tool-using specialisation and demarcation (you know, like stonemasons or that sort of thing, where only initiated groups are allowed) or similar.

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