The First American by Christopher Hardaker (New Page Books) was released in June and is available in all fine bookshops and through Amazon.com.
This is the story of a remarkable art piece discovered in 1959 by an equally remarkable man at the Valsequillo Reservoir outside the city of Puebla, about 75 miles south of Mexico City. Juan Armenta Camacho stunned the world with his discovery of a mineralized elephant pelvis with engravings of elephants, big cats, and other extinct animals.
The engravings had been made when the bone was still fresh, still "green." Whoever made these engravings actually saw those animals, and probably even ate and prayed to them. The most amazing critter of them all was smack dab in the middle of the thing. A four-tusked gomphothere, an ancestor of the mastodon, and extinct in the U.S. for over a million years.
But in Central Mexico, these mythical beasts lived among mammoths and mastodons. And humans. This was absolutely amazing. Other engraved pieces were also found. Nobody in the Americas had ever seen anything like this before. They were all mineralized! It was totally new in every meaning of the word, except for their age which could be very old.
Harvard archaeologist Cynthia Irwin-Williams and Juan Armenta Camacho, with direct support from Harvard and the Smithsonian, found another 80-90 mammoth and mastodon bone sites around the perimeter of the reservoir in 1962. Then they excavated three sites on the Tetela Peninsula. All had artifacts next to mineralized bones that were left behind after butchering,
The sites themselves were laid out pretty much how the hunters left them. The features were covered by successive layers of sands and silts deposited by a very slow creek, and were laid out in the same positions as they were originally buried. In the business of paleo-archaeology, it is called primary deposition, and in this respect, Valsequillo was pure gold.
For example, Irwin-Williams found a horse jaw, and a tooth from it was an inch away from the jaw. This meant virtually no bone movement when they were buried. About a half inch away was a stone knife. It was an immaculate feature; so good that they sawed it out in a square block, a portable feature destined for the national museum. It was just priceless. For the people of Mexico it meant national pride. The city of Puebla began celebrating as The Eden of the Americas. It was all there in that feature block.
This feature block was later vandalized and destroyed by the Mexican archaeologist who signed the official dig permits; this was the same official who would later falsely testify that the artifacts were planted. This charge was laughably dispatched by Irwin-Williams's three thousand photographs detailing the excavation and extraction of each piece – also currently missing.
The real problem was that the bones were mineralized. C14 dating was useless. For six years, nobody knew how old these sites were.
It was absolutely frustrating.
Here you are with a trio of neighboring sites that were very probably the earliest ever uncovered in the New World. Everything was perfect, except … you could not date the sites.
At the time, 1968, the oldest site in the Americas clocked in at 12,000 years (aka 10,000 BC). Crossing the Siberian landbridge to Alaska, the Clovis mammoth killers arrived with their ultra-sleek spearheads, maybe the best on the planet at the time.
What was not considered a bit strange, however, was that no 12,000 year old Clovis points had ever been found in Canada, Alaska or Siberia. After decades of looking, there was still no trace of the Clovis Trail. Oh well, details. It was Clovis or Bust, and its defenders demanded archaeological perfection for any site that dared challenge their cherished, though untested, theory, nicknamed Clovis First.
Just by looking at the hardened sediments, almost sandstone, Irwin-Williams and Marie Wormington knew right off that they were probably older. But how much older? A thousand years older, like 13,000 years ago. Or maybe even 15,000 years old? This was an extremely tender issue among the orthodox. Many had challenged the preClovis crown, and all were tossed down the academic toilet. Now it was Valsequillo's turn, and it came armed for bear. Valsequillo had art and it had unmistakable spearheads.
Valsequillo's artifact types were definitely those of modern man. Simple retouched points made out of chert flakes were found in the older artifact beds, while higher up in the younger, more recent beds, they found full-fledged spearheads and knives, bifacially flaked. They were modern, alright. But they were also much more primitive than the immaculate Clovis points. Could it be that the Valsequillo hunters were the ancestors of the Clovis mammoth hunters?
The modern period starts with the Old World Upper Paleolithic period, around 30-40,000 years ago. This was the beginning of modern man, Homo sapiens sapiens, "man who thinks he thinks." The blade-to-biface revolution happened over there also. And now for the first time in the New World, this critical phase of technological evolution turns up in the New World, in Central Mexico. This was huge in itself. The theoretical potentials of such discoveries would be shattering.
The artifacts, the art and the sandy-silt matrix immediately challenged the Clovis Firsters. Dr. Wormington even conceded that Valsequillo could be 40,000 years. Everyone agreed however, that it could not be earlier than 40,000 years because only modern man was intelligent enough to manage the trip from Siberia to the New World. It was common knowledge.
Without clear dates for the artifacts, talk was cheap and frustrations grew. Then geological science entered the fray. In 1968, a USGS geologist suggested using his new Uranium Series technique to date the bone, and that's when everything fell apart.
The bone dates from the Tetela sites were 250,000 years old! And so opened up one of the craziest archaeological wormholes in history. That's a quarter million years old! Modern man didn't live back then, and all the artifacts from Valsequillo were fancy spearheads and blades – things we Mods didn't know how to make until 30-40,000 years ago. And there was art! And Valsequillo was 250,000 years old? That's Homo erectus Time!! And there's art?
It not only threatened to trash the American paradigm of prehistory, it would also trash the Old World paradigm for the last phases of human evolution. This was serious. There were modern stone tools in Mexico that were 200,000 years older than the earliest modern tools in Europe and Asia and Africa. It was nuts. It was impossible any way you looked at it.
Geologists kept coming up with similar ages for the site no matter what they threw at it. And no matter what the geological sciences turned up, the archaeological community fought back with a stifling wall of absolute silence and noncomment. They would have none of it. Period. The wormhole became an academic black hole, the region became a forbidden zone, and Valsequillo dropped from the lips of credibility.
In the end the archaeologists won through silence. Irwin-Williams never published an official volume; not even site reports. And the curiousity that raged through the professional community was calmly checked at the door of credibility.
What happened to the artifacts? The art? Gone. Lost. Missing. Destroyed? There was lots of stuff. Priceless stuff. Now it is forgotten stuff, largely a non-subject on both sides of the border with professionals from Mexico and the US sharing a common disinterest. This was America's first art, first spearheads, first kill sites, and a lot of other firsts as well. It satisfied all the required perfections demanded by the Clovis First crowd. And it was still flushed down the academic toilet.
The archaeologists would not work with the geologists unless they recanted their "ridiculous" dates. The geologists could not do this. Every time they dated the site with different dating techniques, the site came out as old or older than 200,000 years. And it would take a lot more than catcalls by angry archaeologists to make the geologist betray the scientific laws governing their evidence. Science is not opinion, but that was all the archaeologists could muster. And in the end, the archaeologists won by default, by absolute noncomment; not even a whisper. And that was pretty much that.
Had it not been for a lone hold out geologist from the original project, one of America's greatest archaeology stories would have been lost to the fog of professional amnesia. She was able to recover the archives of Irwin-Williams, who had passed away several years earlier. Letters, notes, some photos and other materials would show that Valsequillo was pure archaeological gold. It may not have been the earliest contender for the preClovis throne, but it was simply the best. And my archaeological elders didn't tell us about it? Or they felt compelled to forget about it? Only deep therapy will tell. One thing is certain. From that point on, for the next thirty years, First American studies were held hostage by the myth of Adam and Eve Clovis.
Today, Valsequillo still remains unresolved. The good news is that pros are back doing work at one of the sites. A couple years ago, another investigator reported finding human footprints in lava a few miles away. It is an ongoing drama, and this is the prequel.
The list below is from a 1967 NSF grant proposal by Irwin-Williams and the project geologist, Hal Malde, on loan by USGS. Most of these people were prime time players during the 1960s, and included at least two notable Clovis Firsters. It was an early instance of an integrated and multi-disciplined approach to archaeology. The potential worldwide implications for the Valsequillo discoveries could be monumental, and the world was watching. The official model for the rise of modern humans was facing its greatest challenge.
Peabody Museum, Harvard
|Zircon Fission-Track Dating
USGS Branch of Isotope Geology
H. Marie Wormington
|Volcanic Ash Chronology
USGS, Field Geochemistry and Petrology
Harold E. Malde
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
Paul S. Martin
University of Arizona Geochron Lab
Clayton E. Ray
Meyer Rubin USGS
C. Vance Haynes, University of Arizona
Washington State University
|Neutron Activation Analysis
University of Oregon
USGS Branch of Isotope Geology
Joseph C. Liddicoat, USGS
In 2001, we got to go back for another look with a whole new generation of Mexican archaeologists. It had nothing to do with renewed interest by the US professional community. They had shown they were willing to let the priceless discovery drift forever. Rather, it took the interest of a well-healed outsider, a MIT engineering graduate, to get the show back on the road. As a result, the still-reluctant US community has been forced once again, after a generation of silence, to face Valsequillo, the 900-pound gorilla in America's paleo living room.