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Exactly who was first to arrive in the Americas?

Smithsonian has a kind of rundown of the current state of the specialized field of American prehistory that concerns itself with figuring out exactly who were the first people to make it to the Americas thousands of years ago.

If you remember our episode Who were the first Americans?, ever since the 1950s, when carbon dating of a set of distinct arrowheads found in Clovis, New Mexico showed that they were about 13,000 years old, determining and then defending the idea that it was the makers of these arrowheads who arrived to the United States first set off pretty much a war in anthropology. The defenders of these ancient toolmakers came to be called the Clovis police, systematically ostracizing from academia anyone who said they'd found a site that suggested the presence of earlier people. And a number of people found sites like this and a number of people felt the cold chill of the Clovis police -- scientists who would attend lectures to heckle the presenters, who wrote letters to the universities where other-than-Clovis-first researchers worked insisting they be fired.

If all of this strikes you as unsettling juvenile, as if the people in the upper echelons of academia never really left school and never learned how to operate outside of the playground, you will be happy to hear the Clovis police and the theory that they have so ardently defended for decades is dead, dead, dead. There are still people hanging on to the theory for dear life, having built their careers on it and made so many enemies (who are now proven correct) from it, but it is clear that around North and South America other sites that were clearly made by people other than Clovis toolmakers at a time that is clearly earlier than the Clovis were running around spearing mastodon.

With the Clovis police vanquished and no real pattern among the various pre-Clovis sites to clearly show who was first, the field has been thrown totally open once more -- a pair of researchers who hypothesize paleolithic Frenchmen arrived in Newfoundland by sailing along the bottom edge of the ice sheet extending from the Arctic into the Atlantic Ocean are being taken seriously. Before the death of the Clovis police, perhaps even the Smithsonian author wouldn't have felt comfortable including a mention of their work.

But this sea change in the field of American prehistory has also brought not just an openness to examining new candidates for who was first but also a change in the way the field carries itself: The question, does it really matter who was first? is becoming a persistent one among these researchers.

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