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The Dawn of Humans: Who Were the First Americans

By Michael Parfit Photographs by Kenneth Garrett

Who were the first Americans? It’s an open question as archaeologists weigh the newest evidence.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

“You know it’s a good day in archaeology,” said Al Goodyear, “when you get up in the morning and there are 200 people and a TV crew looking in your pit.” I was at the Topper site in southwestern South Carolina at a weekend meeting for archaeologists hosted by Goodyear. There were newspaper reporters and photographers, documentary filmmakers, and even a local TV station with a truck that had cranked an antenna on a pole into the tops of the trees in the hopes of broadcasting live.

They were all here because Goodyear had uncovered flakes of stone that looked like those made by humans. The flakes were found in sand below material dating from about the time of Clovis (13,500 years ago). It was another apparent break in the time barrier.

The presence of a TV crew indicated to some scientists that the story of the first Americans had become too popular and immediate for its own good.

“Ideally everything should be hashed out by the experts first,” said Stuart Fiedel, a consulting archaeologist and the author of a book about American prehistory. “But that hasn’t been the pattern for a long time.”

* * * * *

To me the breakthroughs at Monte Verde, Cactus Hill, and Meadowcroft were exciting, and I wondered why some archaeologists seemed so cautious about dynamic new ideas. When I asked Haynes about that, he told a story of his own experience.

In the late 1950s Haynes worked on a dig in Nevada called Tule Springs, which reportedly predated Clovis sites. There prehistoric animal bones were associated with apparent hearths dating back more than 28,000 years.

What Haynes found instead was that the charcoal in the hearths wasn’t charcoal at all but decaying vegetation on its way to becoming coal. The dates were right, but there had been no hearths—and no humans.

“That was a real learning experience for me,” Haynes said. “It makes you cautious. You begin to see how easy it is to misinterpret things.”

The time barrier is just one issue in the search for the first Americans. Another piece of the puzzle is how they got here.

To print the whole National Geographic story, click here.

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Archaeologist Joseph McAvoy discusses theories about the first Americans based on artifacts unearthed at the Cactus Hill site in Virginia.

We offer this forum board in Spanish and English. After much debate, why is it important to know conclusively who the first Americans were and how they arrived? Join the discussion.

Les ofrecemos este forum en español y en inglés. Luego de tanto debate. ¿Porqué es tan importante saber definitivamente quienes fueron los primeros americanos y como llegaron? Únase a la discusión.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

To help build a more accurate picture of the human past, archaeologists most often turn to radiocarbon (C14) dating to determine the age of organic materials such as bone, charcoal, or wood. For an explanation of C14 dating, see the question-and-answer session posted by Tom Higham of the Waikato Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory in New Zealand at www.c14dating.com/k12.html.

But radiocarbon years aren’t always the same as calendar years! Calibration scales have recently been created to convert C14 dates to calendar years. For more information, visit the Scientific American website at www.sciam.com/2000/0900issue/0900nemecekbox3.html.

Archaeology Resources
Scroll down to “Prehistoric migrations to the Americas” to access sites that discuss many of the subjects covered in this story, including the controversy about dates at Monte Verde, considered by most archaeologists to contain the oldest evidence of human occupation in the Americas.

Center for the Study of the First Americans
Affiliated with the Department of Anthropology at Oregon State University, CSFA is dedicated to studying the peopling of the Americas. This website includes an online version of the magazine Mammoth Trumpet and a list of links to other sites.

Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre
Explore the story of Beringia, also known as the Bering land bridge, at this Canadian site.

Waikato Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory, New Zealand
Discussion of carbon dating and calibration of dates.


Boldurian, Anthony T. and John L. Cotter. Clovis Revisited: New Perspectives on Paleoindian Adaptations from Blackwater Draw, New Mexico. University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1999.

Dillehay, Thomas D. The Settlement of the Americas. Basic Books, 2000.

Dixon, E. James. Bones, Boats, and Bison: Archeology and the First Colonization of Western North America. The University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Meltzer, David. Search for the First Americans. St. Remy Press and Smithsonian Books, 1993.

Thomas, David Hurst. Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity. Basic Books, 2000.

West, Frederick Hadleigh. American Beginnings: The Prehistory and Paleoecology of Beringia. University of Chicago Press, 1996.


Gore, Rick. “The Dawn of Humans: People Like Us” National Geographic, July 2000, 90-117.

Keyser, Andre. “The Dawn of Humans: New Finds in South Africa,” National Geographic, May 2000, 76-83.

Berger, Lee. “The Dawn of Humans: Redrawing Our Family Tree?,” National Geographic, Aug. 1998, 90-99.

Gore, Rick. “Tracking the First of Our Kind: The Dawn of Humans,” National Geographic, Sept. 1997, 92-99.

Gore, Rick. “The First Europeans: The Dawn of Humans,” National Geographic, July 1997, 96-113.

Gore, Rick. “Expanding Worlds: The Dawn of Humans,” National Geographic, May 1997, 84-109.

Gore, Rick. “The First Steps: The Dawn of Humans,” National Geographic, Feb. 1997, 72-99.

Johanson, Donald C. “Face-to-Face with Lucy’s Family: The Dawn of Humans,” National Geographic, Mar. 1996, 96-117.

Gore, Rick. “Neandertals: The Dawn of Humans,” National Geographic, Jan. 1996, 2-35.

Leakey, Meave. “The Farthest Horizon: The Dawn of Humans,” National Geographic, Sept. 1995, 38-51.

Gore, Rick. “The Most Ancient Americans,” National Geographic, October 1997, 92-99.

Canby, Thomas Y. “The Search for the First Americans,” National Geographic, Sept. 1979, 330-363.


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