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Old Habitation in a New World

The Americas, it’s accepted, were populated by migrants from northeast Asia who crossed the land bridge over what is now the Bering Strait and dispersed southward. Human settlement on our continent has been dated back at least 12,000 years, with some artifacts hinting at even earlier habitation. But the chronology of hemispheric settlement must now be recalculated again. Strong evidence shows that humans lived in southern Chile at least 12,500 years ago. The site, called Monte Verde, was first excavated in 1977 by a team of archeologists led by Dr. Tom D. Dillehay, of the University of Kentucky. Further research has convinced even many skeptics that the place was indeed home to a human community.

They were, the evidence makes clear, hunter-gatherers, and their diet included berries and potatoes, big and small game--a piece of preserved mastodon has been found--and shellfish from the Pacific, about 30 miles away. They lived in log huts apparently insulated with animal hides and tied together with grasses. They made tools from bone and stone and used fire; radiocarbon dating of charcoal from the site fixes its place in time. Perhaps the most poignant reminder of their presence was a single child’s footprint, left in soft clay near a hearth. Somewhere, perhaps, the genetic heirs of that child go about their daily activities.

Various sites in North America have yielded artifacts pointing to habitation 11,000 or so years ago. Clovis, N.M. is perhaps the best known. But like Clovis on our continent, Monte Verde’s status as the first known place of hemispheric habitation is not immutable. Future discoveries, tomorrow or a century from now, could yield artifacts pointing to an even earlier time when humans flourished on the American continents. In fact, a lower level at Monte Verde that has yet to be fully studied might push the time of known settlement back thousands of years. The age of exploration that began in the 15th century led Europeans to call our hemisphere the New World, a designation that continues to this day. New it may be, compared with other settled areas. But the discovery of the ancient village at Monte Verde is just the most recent reminder of how relative that word can be.


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