54. Possible Relatives in the Americas
Monte Verde site (Los Lagos, Chile)
by George Weber
Location of the Monte Verde site has been researched and excavated as principal investigator between 1977 and 1988 by Thomas D. Dillehay, an American archaeologist.
The site was first discovered in 1975 by local men clearing a path through shrublands along the small Chinchihuapi creek.
The Monte Verde site lies on a small creek 60 km (36 statute miles) from the Pacific. During the last stage of the ice age, around 14,000 years ago, a small village was built there. It was briefly occupied before a catastrophic event buried and sealed it off under a layer of mud. The special circumstances ensuring the near-perfect preservation of the exceptionally ancient village (though not of its inhabitants, about whom please see the end of this chapter) made the site one of the most important in American prehistory - as well as one of the most controversial. It is this site that finally killed off the "Clovis First theory" in the USA (but not without a mighty struggle lasting decades, see Clovis).
At the Monte Verde site, besides stone tools and animal bones, organic material and even a human footprint have survived - but no human remains. The Monte Verde site had been occupied for perhaps a year or less when a major disaster fell on the the wood-framed, hide-covered huts and buried them all under a tight blanket of mud. Happily for us, the inhabitants had to leave most of their possessions and even their offerings to the spirits behind, and it is these possessions that give archaeologists today plenty to wonder, think and argue about.
US American archaeologists are notable for the waspish tone they tend to employ when commenting the discoveries of their colleages and competitors. Latin American archaeologists, by contrast, tend to be far more softspoken and polite. Although deep in Latin America, Monte Verde has been "a US show" from the start and few other sites have had such ill-tempered and long-lasting trail of multiple controversies.
For those who wish to delve into the convoluted and acrimonious disputes still surrounding the excavation of the Monte Verde site, see the 1999 Scientific American Discovering Archaeology report "Monte Verde Revisited".
The landscape of the Monte Verde site
Accepting Monte Verde (and since then many other South American sites) meant that we do not now have a clear picture of how and when the first Americans entered the new continent. The previously sacrosanct idea that all Americans living on the continent prior to the arrival of Columbus were of the same group (i.e. Amerind) has also been shattered by new genetic evidence: there were at least four and perhaps more waves of migration even though their origins, dates and and routes are far from clear (see, for example, Fuegian-Patagonian archaeology ).
There are two Monte Verde levels:
Monte Verde 2 (MV2) - ca. 14,000 years
The upper and younger (though still breathtakingly ancient) site, in Zone B of the map below, Monte Verde 2 is the site that shattered the "Clovis First" theory and that is among the most important sites in the Americas today. Its earliest date is 14,500 to 14,000 calibrated C14 years before the present, making it roughly contemporaneous with "Luzia" (Lapa Vermelha IV) of Lagoa Santa in Brazil. The Monte Verde Site 2 is definitively among the oldest sites in the Americas today.
Monte Verde 1 (MV1) - ca. 33,000 years
The lower and much older site, in Zone C of the map below, is more enigmatic and has the potential (if confimed) to shatter a great deal more than just "Clovis First": Monte Verde 1 lies deep below Monte Verde 2 and if the C14 dates that have come from charcoal at that level are to be believed, it is a mind-boggling 33,000 calibrated C14 years before the present. For comparison: at that time Neanderthal man was still living in parts of Europe. Some clay-lined hearths, more than two dozen pieces of what could be battered stone tools were found of which 7 were clearly flaked by humans, while others showed polish and striations of their sharp edges, possibly from processing of meat, hides and plants. Despite the evidence, its discoverer Th. D. Dilleyhay is very cautious when he wrote (in his The Settlement of the Americas, Basic Books, 2000):
"... although the stratigraphy is intact, the radiocarbon dates are valid, and the human artefacts are genuine, I hesitate to accept this older level without more evidence and without sites of comparable age elsewhere in the Americas."
The date is so much outside any existing framework for American prehistory that archaeologists do not quite know what to do with it - while the usual conspiracy theorists stir expectantly. It could be a dating error (C14 is not infallible) - or it could presage a very major upheaval in American (and world) prehistory yet to come. But also see Pedra Furada.
Map of the central excavation area of the Monte Verde site:
(adapted from Scientific American - Discovering Archaeology,
Special Report "Monte Verde Revisited" Nov-Dec 1999).
-- small orange rectangles: test pits
-- long orange rectangles: test trenches
-- dark red rectangles: main excavation pits (western sites in areas A-C in Zone B, eastern sites in areas D-W in Zone D
The village excavated must have looked something like the view shown beloe (adpted from Scientific American , October 1984):
Areas D-W (Zone A): residential huts were found constructed of wood or bones of large animals and covered with animal hides. Most of the huts were north of the creek but a few were also on the southern side. The archaeologists found most of the lumber, wood tools and grinding stones in this area.
Areas A-C (Zone D): a non-residential area that included a wishbone-shaped structure (see picture and text further down - note: it is a structure in this hut that is wishbone shaped, not the hut! see below) that remains unexplained but appears to have had religious significance. Most of the mastodon bones and complex bi-facial stone tools together with carefully selected parts of plants t(some of which are still todfay used for their medicinal properties) were deposited in a rough circle around the house protecting the wishbone-like structure. A sort of shaman's hut or temple??
Schematic stratigraphies of the Monte Verde site (adapted from
Scientific American - Discovering Archaeology, Special Report
"Monte Verde Revisited" Nov-Dec 1999):
Green: strata 1-4: modern and 4,700 to 8,300 calibrated C14 years before the present before the present
Brown: stratum 5: anoxic peat layer, evidence of the flash flood or sunami that destroyed Monte Verde 2 and sealed it off
Black stratum 6: Monte Verde 2, 14,000 to 14,500 calibrated C14 years before the present before the present
Grey stratum 7
Red Stratum: Monte Verde 1, 33,000 calibrated C14 years before the present before the present (?)
Another and more detailed schematic stratigraphy of the
Monte Verde site Note that the early people living in the area had
experienced volcanic activity and may have had experience
Another and more detailed schematic stratigraphy of the Monte Verde site
Note that the early people living in the area had experienced volcanic activity and may have had experience with tsunamis
Easily the strangest and most interesting feature of the site is a "wishbone-shaped feature" (not a "wishbone-shaped hut" as is often reported): piles of sand and gravel piled up in the form of a wish-bone, held together with what probably was animal fat and roughly roughly 1 m (3.3 feet) in length. There can be little doubt that this arrangement had religious significance.
That the end of the settlement was swift indeed is confirmed by the fact that on the "wishbone-shaped feature" there were several plugs of boldo leaves mixed with seaweed and another unidentified plant. Boldo leaves are still used today in South America to cure stomach pains and relieve colds and congestion. Offerings to the spirits and the shaman - just before the tsunami struck?
Along the altar's foundation there were vertical wood stubs and scraps of animal skin, the remnants of a hide-draped frame hut that had stood there. In front of the hut and in a rough circle around it were arranged salt crystals, plant remains, mastodon bones, a chunk of animal meat (based on DNA analysis most likely from a mastodon), hearths, and stone tools. More than a third of the plants were imports, brought from their native habitats on the Pacific coast, high in the Andes, or from grasslands and other settings 30 to 250 miles distant. Many of the species found are still used by contemporary native Mapuche for food, drink, or medicine. Only the usable parts of many of those plants made it to Monte Verde. Some were also burned in food pits, on the floors of what once were huts, and in shallow hearths.
Along the foundatuion of the shaman's hut there were wooden stubs (thought to have been tent stakes (see below) and scraps of animal skin, the remnants of a hide-draped frame hut.
The footprint of a small adult or adolescent in the wet sand has survived the catastrophe 13,000 years ago until today, sealed in by mud.
The small but sophisticated toolkit found at Monte Verde 2 (the modern coin is shown for comparison of size).Reproduced from Th. D. Dillehay ,"he Settlement of the Americas, 2000).
Many archaeological artefacts were discovered at Monte Verde - but no human remains. Why?
There are many hints at the nature of the catastrophe that overtook Monte Verde so long ago. Chile sits on a major geological fault line: the continent of South America pushing westwards into the Pacific. The stratigraphy of the site contains volcanic ash and there still are many active volcanoes all along the Chilean coast and beyond. Earthquakes are common. It is not a static environment, geologically speaking.
The Monte Verde site was so remarkably well-preserved und pristine because a thick layer of mud had sealed it off in a single, sudden, catastrophic event. Sudden it was but not so sudden that the people in the village were struck down where they stood. It cannot have been a landslide or flash flood as the country around Monte Verde is relatively flat and substantial mountains are too far away in the east. Even the heaviest imaginable rainstorm would not have produced the layer of mud but would simply have washed it all away. A volcanic eruption would have laid down a layer of ash, not one of muddy peat.
On the other hand, as recently as 1960 an earthquake followed by a tsunami devastated the coasts of the island of Chiloe and other Chilean coasts only a short distance from Monte Verde.Where an active geology and a body of water meet, tsunamis are an ever-present danger.
The ancient villagers of Monte Verde must have recognized the portents of a quaking earth followed a little later by an approaching roar from the sea. The people who lived there clearly knew about tsunamis and they did the right thing at once - get the hell out! Whether they were fast enough to make it to safety we do not know. Perhaps some or all of them still lie buried and preserved under the mud in an area a little further away from the sea than their village had been - which would be lucky for science. Or they all made it - which would be lucky for them.
Monte Verde is roughly 60 km from the sea and this distance was not much larger in the late pleistocene. The Chilean coast drops steeply and even a lower sea level would not have laid bare much additional dry land. For a a tsunami to have reached 60 or more km inland it must have been a genuine monster and very much larger than the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. On arrival at Monte Verde, however, the tsunami must have wakened so much that it could still flatten the flimsy huts but it could no longer tear up the soil and destroy more solid artefacts (such as the wishbone-shaped structure). Even a human footprint survived miraculously. The weakened tsunami had also begun to shed its heavy load of ripped-up soil, burying and sealing off the Monte Verde village under a huge amount of mud.
The aboriginal Negrito of the Andaman islands in 2004 reacted in a similarly well-informed, quick-witted way to the much smaller 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, even though there had been no tsunami in their islands for many generations. They knew what to do and they did it in a most appropriate and efficient hurry. There was no loss of life among them. No non-Andamanese had known that they knew, including the writer of this text, who worried in an interview with the "Times of India" a few days after the tsunami and still cut off from any intelligible news from the islands that the Andamanese aborigines (who only number a few hundred) might well have been wiped out. I have never before or since been so happy to have been so wrong.
The difference to the reaction of the Indian settlers and and officials in the islands was striking: most had never heard of tsunamis and nonde had any idea what was heading their way at the speed of an express train. There was no warning system. Some clueless innocents even walked out onto the newly exposed sea floor after the suddenly retreating tide, to pick up fish flapping around and to find out what was going on. When they spotted the incoming wall of water, it was too late.
For more information on tsunamis and especially the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 see Tsunami News, Tsunami maps and statistics, Tsunami photos and V. Pandya's article on Tsunami and the Onge of Little Andaman island.
Among web sites with further information are:
[ Go to HOME ]
[ Go to CONTENTS OF OUT-OF-AFRICA CHAPTERS ]
[ Go to CONTENTS OF AMERICA CHAPTERS ]
Last change 27 April 2007