Debate Erupts Over Alleged 33,000-Year-Old Tools Found in Chiquihuite Cave
In 2020, a team of Mexican and British archaeologists announced in the journal Nature that they’d discovered a rich cache of stone artifacts that proved Chiquihuite cave in Zacatecas, Mexico had been occupied by Native Americans as long as 33,000 years ago. This was a stunning announcement, since if true it would mean the Americas were occupied long before most archaeologists think such a thing was possible.
Now, just one year later, this potentially revolutionary assertion is being challenged, by another team of scientists who don’t accept the original team’s interpretation of the “evidence” found in the Chiquihuite cave.
During the first Chiquihuite cave excavations, researchers found nearly 2,000 pieces of limestone in multiple layers that they were convinced had been chipped, ground, flaked, or otherwise modified to create various scraping, chopping, punching, or carving tools. ( Nature)
Chiquihuite Cave: Two Perspectives, One Set of Evidence
The original team was led by Ciprian Ardelean, an archaeologist from Mexico’s Universidad Autonomo de Zacatecas. During their Chiquihuite cave excavations, they found nearly 2,000 pieces of limestone in multiple layers that they were convinced had been chipped, ground, flaked, or otherwise modified to create various scraping, chopping, punching, or carving tools. The oldest tools they found in the cave were in layers dated to 33,000 to 31,000 years ago, while the bulk of the hand-crafted artifacts were recovered from a layer dated to approximately 26,500 years ago.
These archaeologists were convinced they’d discovered smoking-gun evidence of Native American activity in the high-altitude Chiquihuite cave dating back into the far reaches of the Ice-Age-era past. But other experts disagree.
In a new article in the journal PaleoAmerica, a group of scientists have disputed the Ardelean team’s interpretation of their discoveries. Led by archaeologists James Chatters from the consulting firm Applied Paleoscience and Ben Potter from Liaocheng University in China, these scientists reject the notion that Ardelean and company actually found stone tools . They say it is far more likely that what Ardelean and colleagues are calling tools are actually natural artifacts created by geologic processes.
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“In the high-energy cliff-face environment where Chiquihuite cave is found, falling and tumbling rocks strike one another and drive off shards, which often have some of the features of rocks broken by people,” James Chatters told Gizmodo in an interview. “A stone striking a stone can produce similar looking products regardless of how the force is initiated.”
In support of their conclusion that natural processes created the supposed artifacts, Chatters and his team note the following:
- None of the artifacts featured overlapping chipped areas of a similar size (which human toolmakers normally produce).
- The alleged tools weren’t found distributed widely throughout the cave but were concentrated in strata that featured heavy concentrations of rocks (a distribution consistent with natural production).
- The tools found had supposedly been manufactured and used over a 10,000-year period but showed no signs of stylistic change or innovation.
- There were many different types of stone available in the surrounding Zacatecas Valley, but the ancient toolmakers apparently used limestone (not the hardest of rocks) to make everything.
- No remains of cooking hearths or fossilized bones from butchered animals were found in the layers that produced the alleged artifacts, as would be anticipated if there were toolmakers living in the cave.
- No human fossils or DNA samples have been recovered in the Chiquihuite cave.
The lack of any human remains or DNA in the cave is perhaps the best evidence that the supposed tools weren’t made by humans at all.
“The likelihood of human populations persisting for many thousands of years, even overlapping with Clovis in the region for over 1,000 years, yet then leaving no genetic trace, is vanishingly small,” Ben Potter declared.
Gizmodo sought a response from Ardelean and his colleagues. Not surprisingly, they are standing by their original interpretation of their discoveries.
Potter, Chatters, and their associates have “misunderstood our evidence,” Ardelean and associates asserted. “They failed to recognize human-made stone items in the illustrations, as well as the concise descriptions we provided in our paper, of an assemblage whose traits would not occur naturally and under the circumstances alleged by our critics.”
The archaeologists also said they would soon provide further data that will support their claims, data obtained during their most recent excavations at the cave. When presented, that study “will provide more in-depth assessments of the site and will allow readers to better evaluate the human involvement.”
Lithic artifacts found in the Chiquihuite cave may not be tools but naturally produced rock fragments according to the latest research. ( Nature)
The Slow Extinction of the Clovis-First Hypothesis
There has been a longstanding belief in archaeology that the first humans arrived in the Americas relatively recently.
It was the Clovis people who were credited with creating the original Native American culture, after their purported arrival in North America approximately 13,500 years ago. The Clovis culture was identified by the distinctive pointed weapons and tools it made from stone, and more than 10,000 Clovis points have been discovered at about 1,500 sites spread all across North America.
The conventional story claimed that when the last Ice Age was ending and the glacial cover over North America had begun to melt, people coming from Asia could cross the land bridge that connected modern-day Siberia with modern-day Alaska to reach the Americas. This bridge is known as Beringia (or the Bering Strait land bridge), and those who crossed it could have migrated southward down an ice-free North American coastal corridor beginning perhaps 14,000 or 15,000 years ago.
This land bridge would be submerged by rising sea levels between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago, but for at least a couple of thousand years it would have given migrants from the west a free and clear pathway to the Americas.
Once the Clovis people were accepted as the first settlers by most archaeologists, discoveries that claimed to find proof of people living in the Americas before them would be seen as anomalous. This guaranteed such finds (if they came) would be challenged, as promoters of the Clovis-first hypothesis sought to defend their scientific and ideological turf.
The claims of Ardelean’s team have been identified as anomalous, but they are only the most recent challenge to the Clovis-first theory. In fact, dozens of archaeological sites have been discovered in North and South America that suggest different cultures were around before the Clovis culture, some likely long before the latter arose.
In another 2020 study that appeared in the journal Nature, scientists took a closer look at some of the claims that had been made about earlier occupation. They identified 42 sites in North America and Beringia that had been dated for occupation and concluded based on the data that “humans were probably present before, during and immediately after the Last Glacial Maximum (about 26.5–19 thousand years ago).”
Native American archaeological sites found in South America, including Monte Verde in southern Chile and Pedra Furada in eastern Brazil, also have produced evidence of more ancient occupation, going back at least 14,500 years in the former case and more than 20,000 years in the latter.
If these discoveries are legitimate, it means the story of the migration across the Bering Strait land bridge is only partially true. Many may have come that way, including the Clovis people. But earlier migrants would have arrived by sea, which allowed them to circumnavigate the glacial cover that blocked passage from Beringia to the Americas 15,000 to 20,000 years ago (or before).
These earliest Native Americans would have likely migrated to the area of the Bering Strait land bridge first, and then sailed southward along the Pacific coast from there. They could have made landfall at various un-glaciated spots in North America or in South America, where the glacial cover did not reach, before moving inland.
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This alternative story of how the first Native Americans arrived represents a significant departure from the previous consensus. But it is based on an accumulating body of evidence, which could include the Chiquihuite cave discoveries if they ultimately stand up to further scrutiny.
Regardless of how this particular debate ends, it would seem to be only a matter of time before the archaeological community as a whole accepts that people arrived in North and South America long before 13,500 years ago. There have been too many anomalous discoveries to keep the more recent arrival hypothesis viable, even if some of the supposedly older sites turn out to have been misidentified.
Top image: Team members entering the Chiquihuite cave, where the purported prehistoric manmade artifacts were found, which a recent study has claimed were naturally produced. Source: Devlin A. Gandy
By Nathan Falde