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First American: New Discoveries

Kennewick Man-Skull and Reproduction

It seems that every year discoveries push back the date for the first Americans. The January edition of the National Geographic magazine features an article on the discovery of a young teenaged girl who fell to her death into one of the many cenotes, or sink holes, in Central American Yucatan 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. Although this date is roughly the date Clovis points were being manufactured in New Mexico and does not push back the date of first Americans, of significance is its connection to the “Kennewick Man” discovered along the Columbia River in Washington.

Recently, after extensive court battles, a group of scientists were granted the right to study Kennewick Man. The battles arose over jurisdiction of the remains and claims by the Amatilla tribe under NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act). Douglas Owsley, curator for the National Museum of Natural History, “believes the Kennewick Man belongs to an ancient population of seafarers who were America’s original settlers. They did not look like Native Americans. The few remains we have of these early people show they had longer, narrower skulls with smaller faces. These mysterious people have long since disappeared.”

Atlas of Beringia

The girl, named Naia, from Yucatan and Kennewick man have skulls that are very different from modern Native Americans and can be traced to the ancient Ainu people of Japan. But with newer technology, additional DNA testing of these remains suggest that they are linked to current Native Americans, leading to a renewed demand for the return of the remains of the Kennewick man for reburial.

Similarly, genetic testing of 13,000 year old human remains on the Anzick property near Wilsal, Montana, confirmed a connection to modern day Native Americans. This proof led to the return of the remains to be buried by tribal leaders in Montana.

12-13,000 BP (Before Present) fits nicely with the thawing of the Beringian land bridge which reopened around 15,500 BP. Before that, the area was covered by glaciation for about 5,500 years. More evidence supports this time frame.

In 2011, archaeologist Michael Waters of Texas A&M University and his team unearthed evidence of human occupation at Buttermilk Creek north of Austin with settlement dates of 15,500 BP. Waters states, “There’s a pattern here. I think the data clearly show that people were in North America 16,000 years ago.”

Aucilla River surfaces occasionally in Northern Florida

In Northern Florida, the Aucilla river flows underground and surfaces here and there. In the 1980’s, according to a 2013 article in the Smithsonian magazine, archaeologists from the Florida Museum of Natural History opened a formal excavation in one particular sink. There they found a 14, 500 year old mastodon tusk “scarred by circular cut marks from a knife.”

Paisley Cave, Oregon

In one of the five caves known as “Paisley Caves” in South-central Oregon, coprolites (ancient human poop) have been dated to be from 14,500 years ago. So, it is clear that there is plenty of evidence that the first Americans were settled and hunting game as early as 16,000 years ago. And the genetic evidence links today’s Native American population to ancient Asian and Euro-Asian populations in Syberia and Japanese islands.

What happened to these ancient Asian ancestors? According to Owsley, “They were genetically swamped by much larger—and later—waves of travelers from Asia and disappeared as a physically distinct people. These later waves may have interbred with the first settlers, diluting their genetic legacy. A trace of their DNA still can be detected in some Native American groups . . .”

Will there be discoveries that push back the 16,000 BP date for first Americans? The glaciation of the Berengia region suggests maybe not. But, evidence that Australian aborigines crossed the frozen ocean from Asia 55,000 BP would indicate that it is certainly possible.

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