St. John's College University of Cambridge | Devlin A. Gandy

Discovery Of 30,000-Year-Old Tools 'Rewrites' History Of Humans In The Americas

Ryan Ford 23 Jul 2020

It's easy to forget sometimes that science is a process. It's a methodology for understanding the world as best we possibly can, through evidence, data, testing, re-testing, analysis, and following the leads that evidence and facts provide.

For scientists, making a discovery that upends much of what was previously known has to be one of the most exciting things that can happen. For the rest of us, it can be a bit frustrating. Just when we thought we knew something, we find out it's not the case. But that's just how it goes with science - new data can really change things.

Now, one new discovery has scientists re-evaluating a pretty major belief about how and when humans started spreading around the world.

We all come from Africa, originally, and we sure didn't all stay there.

Unsplash | Johannes Plenio

And one of the bigger mysteries was how and when our ancestors managed to cross those great big oceans separating the land mass of The Americas from Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Most of us learned in school that our ancestors journeyed across a land bridge between Alaska and Siberia about 13,000 years ago. However, more recent discoveries suggest that those early settlers came by boat along the same route, traveling down the Pacific coast 1,000 to 2,000 years earlier than that.

The latest discovery, however, blows that estimate out of the water, showing that humans started coming to the Americas at least 30,000 years ago.

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Researchers exploring a cave in Mexico have found considerable evidence that humans were there long before anybody thought they would be.

St. John's College University of Cambridge | Devlin A. Gandy

Chiquihuite Cave is about 2,750 meters above sea level and, unfortunately, is currently well within cartel territory.

To carry out their research, the team had to be accompanied by Mexican police in armored cars, and they had to scale the route to the cave in the dark and sleep there while they worked so they wouldn't be spotted. However, it all seems to have been well worth it.

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Among the remnants of human activity within the cave, the researchers found about 2000 stone tools and fragments.

St. John's College University of Cambridge | Dr Ciprian Ardelean

They didn't find any human DNA - the oldest human DNA found in the Americas dates to about 12,400 years ago - but they did find DNA and materials they could radiocarbon date from what those stone tools were used on.

"We identified DNA from a wide range of animals including black bears, rodents, bats, voles and even kangaroo rats. We think these early people would probably have come back for a few months a year to exploit reoccurring natural resources available to them and then move on," Dr. Mikkel Winther Pedersen, a geneticist from the University of Copenhagen, said in a press release.

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It's important to remember that the researchers don't think these early visitors are ancestors to the Indigenous populations in the Americas.

St. John's College University of Cambridge | Mads Thomsen

They think those early humans in the cave were just visitors, or possibly failed colonizers.

"These early visitors didn’t occupy the cave continuously, we think people spent part of the year there using it as a winter or summer shelter, or as a base to hunt during migration. This could be the Americas' oldest ever hotel," said Professor Eske Willerslev, a DNA scientist at St John’s College, University of Cambridge.

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Although this site might rewrite history, it also raises many more questions.

YouTube | St. John's College Cambridge

"We don’t know who they were, where they came from or where they went. They are a complete enigma," Dr. Ciprian Ardelean of the University of Zacatecas in Mexico said of the cave's visitors.

"The peopling of the Americas is the last holy grail in modern archaeology. Unconventional sites need to be taken seriously and we need to go out and intentionally look for them. This site doesn’t solve anything, it just shows that these early sites exist," Dr. Ardelean added.

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So, it's reasonable to think that archaeologists will search for more promising sites like Chiquihuite Cave to see if some of those questions can be addressed.

"The location of Chiquihuite Cave definitely rewrites what has conventionally been taught in history and archaeology and shows that we need to rethink where we look for sites of the earliest people in Americas," said Dr. Pedersen.

"The implications of these findings are as important, if not more important, than the finding itself. This is only the start of the next chapter in the hotly debated early peopling of the Americas," added Professor Willerslev.

The excavation's findings were published in Nature.

h/t: St. John's College, University of Cambridge

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