Monte Verde, an ancient site located in Chile, has revealed even more evidence that the earliest known Americans existed more than 15,000 years ago in South America. Researchers recently discovered stone tools, cooked plant and animal remains, and fire pits which indicate that a nomadic tribe, adapted to the cold, ice-age environment, was established in South America. The research is being led by Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Tom Dillehay, with Rebecca Webb Wilson University.
Chile’s National Council of Monuments requested a geological and archaeological survey (which was performed by archaeologists, botanists and geologists) of Monte Verde in 2013 to determine the breadth and depth of the site, which is under the protection of the Chilean government. For Dillehay this is familiar ground, as he has worked at the site since 1977. Evidence found at the site has contributed to a whole new understanding of when and how humans first arrived in the Americas.
Dillehay’s excavations have produced a wide variety of evidence of a small human settlement, one that used a stone tool technology predating the one used by the Clovis people who many scholars considered the earliest human culture to exist in the Americas by more than 1,500 years. The findings included hearths, the wooden posts from around twelve huts, pieces of clothing made from animal hides, a piece of meat from a mastodon (with preserved DNA) and incredibly, a child’s footprint preserved in clay. 20 to 30 people are thought to have lived there, according to archaeologists.
Many in the archaeological community have greeted Dillehay’s findings with skepticism, given they challenge the widely accepted paradigm for the first humans in the Americas. As recently as 40 years ago the prevailing belief was the Americas had first been populated approximately 13,000 years ago when a distinctive type of stone projectile points (called Clovis points) used by Asian big-game hunters were used in South America. Since then however, archaeological excavations at sites in both North and South America have produced evidence of an earlier human presence.
The stone tools recently discovered by the team are similar to those Dillehay found previously at Monte Verde. Many of the tools were simple and uni-facial although some of the younger tools found indicated bi-facial technologies. Curiously, according to Dillehay, approximately 34% of the tools were made from non-local materials. The materials were most likely from the coast, but some likely came from the Andes or even beyond the Andes. Previous research has also revealed evidence of Andean plants at the site, further supporting a nomadic population.
The research team recovered 39 stone objects in all, and 12 small fire pits with bones and some edible plant material like nuts and grasses. The bones were typically small, broken and scorched fragments which indicate the animals were cooked.
Most of the bones were determined to be from very large animals; mastodons or prehistoric llamas for example. Smaller animal bones from horses and prehistoric deer were found as well.
Given that the Monte Verde site wasn’t likely to have had the kind of vegetation those animals ate, it’s probable they were killed and butchered somewhere else. Radiocarbon dating indicates the objects range in age from over 14,000 years to 19,000 years old. The wide scattering suggests the people who created them were nomadic hunter-gatherers who likely camped for just one or two nights before moving on. Where they were going is still unknown. Dillehay contends they came through Monte Verde due to the fact the terrain was easier to traverse than the surrounding wetlands and bogs, as well as providing easy access to the stone used to make tools.