Later this year, the first peer-reviewed report on the geostratigraphy of the Topper site in South Carolina will be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. I got to look at the paper, and it allows a solid look at the site stratigraphy, and raises a bunch of questions.
The Topper site is a stratified deeply buried site on the Savannah River about fifty miles in from the Atlantic coast in South Carolina. Excavated for the past 20 years by Al Goodyear and the Allendale Paleoindian Expedition, Topper has confirmed archaic and paleoindian occupations, including a well-preserved Clovis. That in itself makes Topper remarkable—there are very few stratified Clovis sites in North America.
But, below the Clovis site are two additional strata, one dated (now firmly) 15,000 RCYBP, and a second (now firmly) at >50,000 RCYBP. Both layers have similar lithic tools, what excavator Al Goodyear calls a smashed core and microlithic industry.
I have said before here that 50,000 years is a "completely crazy" date for human occupation of the Americas. Recently I was called to task for it, because "completely crazy" isn't what you might call a professional way to characterize scientific archaeological research, which is what the Allendale Paleoindian Expedition is, absolutely. I must agree, my tone was wrong—but I stand by my basic meaning. If Topper turns out to be 50,000 years old, then everything we understand about the world and its population will have to be re-addressed. Let me explain.
Why 50,000 Years in North America is Unlikely
The major question posed by a human occupation in North America 50,000 years ago is—who made it?
Fifty thousand years ago there were two hominins who shared the planet— early modern humans and Neanderthals (and maybe Flores man, but that's a side issue). So far, there is no—and I mean absolutely no—evidence of Neanderthals in the Americas. So, what do we know of Homo sapiens 50,000 years ago?
Early modern humans evolved in Africa, or so the theory goes. The earliest Homo sapiens appearing in Europe mark the Upper Paleolithic, about 40,000 years ago.
The earliest humans appear in Australia about 45,000 years ago. Some of the oldest sites in Australia are closer to 60,000 years ago, and it is possible that that threshold will be pushed back--but there is currently no evidence of any Homo sapiens east of Australia until much later. In fact, the oldest site known in Siberia is the Yana Rhinoceros Horn Site, some 27,000 years ago. This makes 50,000 years of human occupation in America very unlikely.
I'm not the only one who says this. In 2004, when the first news of 50,000 dates at Topper broke, CNN talked to archaeologist Theodore Schurr at University of Pennsylvania, who said "[Topper] poses some real problems trying to explain how you have people (arriving) in Central Asia almost at the same time as people in the Eastern United States. You almost have to hope for instantaneous expansion... We're talking about a very rapid movement of people around the globe."
Waters et al., the authors of the Topper paper appearing in the JAS later this year, also have their doubts about the preclovis occupations, but not on the basis of the dates, which they prove pretty substantially are correct—they don't think either of the stone tool assemblages from the preclovis levels were made by humans, but rather may have been created by freeze-thaw processes.
Topper clearly has a fabulous Clovis site; and it also may have a preclovis site, dated about 15,000 years ago. Excavations are still ongoing, and there certainly may be more to report and eventually I and the other skeptics may be proved wrong about the +50,000 year occupation. That would definitely be exciting, and lead to a complete cockup of what we understand today about the human population of the world.
But, hey. That's why people keep doing archaeology, because we just don't know everything there is to know.
Sources and More Info
- The Topper Site, glossary entry based on Waters et al.
- Populating America
- Populating Australia
- Scientist: Man in Americas earlier than thought (CNN, November 18, 2004)
- Waters, Michael R., Steven L. Forman, Thomas W. Stafford Jr., and John Foss in press Geoarchaeological Investigations at the Topper and Big Pine Sites, Allendale County, Central Savannah River, South Carolina. Journal of Archaeological Science. In press.
- The Allendale Paleoamerican Expedition, the Topper site homepage