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The Big Dig, Washington Post Magazine, April 1, 2001 Part 2
[continued from previosu post]
THE BIG DIG
Adovasio did not set out to wield the "hammer that would pound down the Clovis wall," he
says. But when he found the Miller lanceolate, he was certain this unfluted tool predated
Clovis. He had so well documented his dig that Adovasio felt the lanceolate should have
been embraced as the Folsom point of its day: the object that bursts apart the old
beliefs. But, of course, old beliefs tend to have strong backers, too. And while Adovasio
was sure the Miller lanceolate heralded a revolution, such an idea did not go over very
well with the Clovis-Firsters.
They treated his findings with disbelief and then scorn.
They had hypotheses for why his dates had to be wrong: The site was contaminated by
ancient coal percolating through groundwater; the plant and animal remains discovered with
the human traces are from species not found in the coldest regions, thus raising doubts as
to whether occupation occurred during the ice age; the artifacts had been stirred up by
humans or animals, and therefore weren't really as old as the layers they were found in.
Meadowcroft was, in the words of skeptic Stuart Fiedel, an Alexandria archaeologist, an
"unsolved and improbable enigma." Academic battles are notorious for their nastiness, for
the personalizing of the contest over ideas. And Adovasio faced his share of that. Some
critics, off the record, suggested that he was misleading about which layers certain
artifacts were actually found in, or that he had gotten overcommitted to the Meadowcroft
theory after spending so much time on television promoting it.
It was maddening for someone who prided himself on the fastidiousness of his excavations.
But more maddening was the grinding, decades-long game of alternative scenarios his
critics engaged in. Because no matter how many tests Adovasio ran to disprove one of their
hypotheses about why Meadowcroft couldn't possibly be as old as it seemed, another
hypothesis was always put forward to take its place. In the end, it left a stain of doubt
over the Meadowcroft enterprise. So that when the site was mentioned, it was usually
preceded by the words "controversial" or "disputed."
"It drove me crazy," he says.
The disbelievers, though, forced Adovasio to do more meticulous testing of Meadowcroft
than he might otherwise have done -- work that ended up bolstering his theory. When
critics said they wanted the radiocarbon dating to be done at a laboratory other than the
Smithsonian's, he sent his samples to three additional labs. When they wanted the most
sophisticated dating, he sent material for accelerator mass spectrometry, a process that
measures individual atoms. The result was a series of 52 dates in almost perfect
chronological sequence corresponding to the layers at which the material was found. And a
grain-by-grain microscopic analysis of sediment found no evidence of contamination.
As one of Adovasio's supporters, Southern Methodist University anthropology professor
David Meltzer puts it, "There are 52 dates and they all are in sequence, and they
shouldn't be if there is contamination."
All of which provided powerful evidence that ancient coal percolating through the
groundwater did not randomly inflate the age of the site, and that the artifacts found
there were not disturbed by animals or humans. Still it wasn't enough. One archaeologist
told Adovasio that he wouldn't be convinced until Adovasio dated a tiny fragment of human
bone, which is notorious for producing unreliable dates. Another said the whole enterprise
was dubious unless Adovasio dated a fragment of nut.
He was being subjected to a campaign of "innuendo and distortion," he says. And then, in
the midst of it all in 1990, his wife and collaborator, Rhonda Andrews, took her life. She
was 36 and had bipolar illness, which was then called manic depression. They had no
children. She had been intimately involved in Meadowcroft -- they met when as a student
she volunteered to excavate in those early summers, and later she designed the computer
programs used to document the site. In the wake of her death, he dove even more
relentlessly into the site. "Finishing the project, continuing the research was a way for
me to keep her alive in my mind," he now says.
And then, finally, he was no longer alone.
In 1997, at a boggy site in Chile called Monte Verde, first excavated 20 years before,
archaeologists concluded that it probably had been settled at least 12,500 years ago --
before the Clovis humans. In 1998, at a site on the Savannah River in South Carolina,
called Topper, excavators turned up tiny flaked-stone tools from layers dating to before
12,000 years ago. Then came the findings from Cactus Hill, 45 miles south of Richmond.
Tests of materials there indicated human occupation of the sandy hills of Virginia at
least 15,000 years ago. And the unfluted, flaked-stone tools those people made resembled
those found at Meadowcroft.
Adovasio had company.
"It provided a measure of corroboration a very long time in coming," he says. "The great
unwashed kept yelling, 'We need to see more than one before we'll believe.' "
In October 1999 much of Adovasio's profession met at a conference to discuss these new
findings. The meeting was called "Clovis and Beyond." But it might better have been called
"Clovis Buried." The conference essentially gave its blessing to the overturning of the
Clovis First doctrine.
"There's little doubt [now] there have been pulses of arrival in the New World by a
variety of groups," Adovasio says.
Linguists, analyzing the many native languages spoken in North and South America, estimate
it would take 30,000 years of occupation to arrive at that diversity. Geneticists, looking
at the known rate of human genetic mutations that occur over large spans of time, say the
genetic differences between native populations of Siberia and East Asia and those of
Native Americans indicate a split happened at least 20,000 years ago. Some researchers
think North Americans are blinded by imperialism, and that a record of diverse prehistoric
sites throughout South America suggests that that was where the New World was first
colonized, with people arriving by boat.
Tom Dillehay, the University of Kentucky archaeologist who discovered Monte Verde in 1977
and studied it for years before finding the artifacts that convinced his peers, says that
at Monte Verde he has found stones that are "clearly worked by human hand" in a layer
dated at 30,000 years ago, as well as burned clay and charcoal. Meanwhile, Dennis
Stanford, chairman of the anthropology department at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum
of Natural History, has a slogan for his theory about the people who first came to eastern
North America: "Iberians not Siberians." He believes that people living along the coast of
what is now northern Spain were driven into boats about 18,000 years ago by the scarce
resources of the extreme ice age and that they navigated along the Atlantic ice cap.
Stanford says European prehistoric artifacts bear an intriguing resemblance to what
Adovasio has found at Meadowcroft.
Adovasio himself does not know where the inhabitants of his rock shelter came from. The
Stanford theory doesn't seem quite right to him. He's intrigued by suggestions that the
stone tools found at Meadowcroft are reminiscent of artifacts found in northern China no
later than 15,000 to 20,000 years ago.
For now, though, the question of where the first inhabitants originated is not the one he
wants to answer. Adovasio has begun writing his final report on Meadowcroft, the two
volumes that will pull together his decades of research and work. What he wants to do is
tell everything he can about the evidence left by the people who made their way along the
Ohio River Valley and found shelter at Meadowcroft.
Adovasio sweeps a hand across the view from his excavation site: the serene, tree-filled,
stony hills, the clear, inviting stream running below, the dramatic jutting rock overhang.
"This has been the focal point of my life since 1973."
He moves toward the opening and heads down into the rock shelter. "Now we'll stroll into
the ice age." There is an eerie movie-set quality to clambering along excavated rock that
has a high-tech plastic roof overhead and is illuminated by excavators' fluorescent
lights. Every few feet are horizontal rows of silver-dollar-size white tags, each marked
with numbers and letters indicating their level and what was found there. Overhead are
crisscrossed strings, which once demarcated units to be excavated. "That's the original
grid. It was once on the ground," he says.
Adovasio points out a deer bone and a mollusk left in the wall, from about 2,000 years
ago. "There's a stone tool we left in place." Lying on a surface is an inch-long rock
chipped by human hands. It's about 5,000 years old. He lowers himself along layers of
exposed rock to the bottom of the shelter -- Adovasio is wearing moccasins so as not to
Because it is enclosed, the shelter is mostly devoid of moisture, draining the color out
of the rock. Adovasio spritzes the walls with water from a spray bottle. Where the water
hits, a line of pinkish orange is visible. "The pink rocks were exposed to heat," he
explains. "It's a single-use fireplace. You'd make it if you were staying for the night."
Touch it, he says, and "you can place your hand on a 13,000-year-old fire." When the
charcoal from the fire is brought back to the lab, they can tell what kind of wood was
burned that night, and how hot it got.
He points to his left. "The Miller point came from this general area. The closest I got to
leaping for joy was then." He walks over to the wall where layer after layer of sediment,
with tiny variations in color, is apparent.
He climbs back up, slowly. As he steps out of the enclosure, and stands above the creek,
Adovasio reflects on the generations who passed through Meadowcroft, the traces of whom
he's made visible: "Sometimes at night, sitting there, knowing people were sitting there
10, 12, 14,000 years ago, knowing you are part of a continuum, there is a sense of
antiquity to it, and you know people will sit there long after you're gone."
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