By Sarah Kaplan
Thousands of years ago, some of the first Americans knelt beside a pond in what is now Florida. Clutching sharp stone knives, they hacked at the tusk of a slain mastodon, slicing meat away from the long bone. Then, with their work completed, they got up and walked away, leaving behind some tools and the stripped carcass .
Centuries passed. Sea levels rose. The ancient site was submerged by layers of sediment, and then by a rising river. Wave after wave of human inhabitants came and went: hunters, farmers, explorers, colonizers, retirees from New York. Until, in 2012, a team of archaeologists descended into the river’s murky depths to dig up the artifacts below.
The ancient tools and bone are 14,550 years old, they reported Friday in the journal Science Advances, making them the most ancient human remnants ever found in the southeastern United States. The researchers say the find is unequivocal proof that people were in Florida more than 1,000 years earlier than anyone had imagined — a discovery that could help rewrite the history of humans on the continent.
The new study comes as something of a vindication for the swampy site in the Florida panhandle, named Page-Ladson for the diver who discovered it and the family whose land it is on. In the 1980s, archaeologist James Dunbar and paleontologist David Webb dug up the knife-scarred mastodon tusk that had been left there and estimated it to be more than 14,400 years old.
But the anthropological community was quick to cast doubt on that date. For half a century it had been assumed that the Clovis people — skilled hunters famous for their distinctive fluted spear points — were the first to migrate from Asia and then down through Canada after the glaciers began to melt at the end of the last ice age, roughly 13,000 years ago.
The age given for the tusk didn’t fit that paradigm, other scientists said — the ice-free corridor wouldn’t even have been open yet. Something must have gone wrong with the dig or the radiocarbon dating, or perhaps the marks on the tusk were caused by something other than a human. Even Dunbar and Webb expressed some misgivings about their results.
“I always felt that Dunbar and Webb had been kind of maligned,” said Mike Waters, the director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M and a principal investigator on the latest Page-Ladson report. “So when I was given the chance to go back there, I jumped at it.”
This time, Waters and his colleagues were armed with dating techniques orders of magnitude more precise than their predecessors’. They also had an increasingly compelling case for “pre-Clovis” occupation of the Americas: genetic analyses showing that Native Americans’ ancestors arrived here some 16,000 years ago and archaeological sites as far-flung as Oregon and Chile bearing evidence of human presence long before Clovis.
“What we tried to do at Page-Ladson is make a really strong case that would be unassailable … that these artifacts are man-made and they’re exactly where those people left them 14,550 years ago,” Waters said.
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