Breaking science news: humans in North America 130,000 years ago?

I’ll just put this up here without analysis, as I haven’t yet read the paper. But it’s big news if true. A new a new report Nature by Holen et al. (reference below; free access) claims to have found human tools associated with crushed and cracked mastodon bones at a site in southern California, with the date a full 130,000 years ago! 

Conventional wisdom puts the arrival of humans in North America about 15,000-20,000 years ago, coming from Siberia across the Bering Strait. These hominins are nearly ten times older, and well older than those individuals who left Africa about 60.000 years ago to colonize the globe.

Who were these hominins? Were they a species that went extinct? Or is it a mistake? If this is true, it’s a remarkable and game-changing discovery.  Have a look at the paper, below, but first here’s Nature’s video:

And here are some of the tools:

a–d, Anvil (CM-281). a, Upper surface. Boxes indicate images magnified in b–d; dashed rectangle, magnified in b, small dashed square, magnified in c and solid square, magnified in d. b, Cortex removal and impact marks (arrows). c, Striations (arrows) on the highest upper cortical surface ridge. d, Striations (diagonal arrows) and impact marks with step terminations characteristic of hammer blows (vertical arrows). e–i, Hammerstone (CM-383). e, Impact marks. The box indicates the magnified images in g and h. f, Upper smoothed surface. g, Deep cracks and impact scars (arrows). h, Impact scars from g, showing results of three discrete hammerstone blows on an anvil (arrows). The large flake scar (central arrow) has a clear point of impact with radiating fissures. The small scar (right arrow) has a negative impact cone and associated scars and fissures preserved beneath a layer of caliche. i, Striations (arrows) and abrasive polish on upper cortical surface (near black North arrow in f). Scale bars, 5 cm (a), 2 cm (b, g, h), 1 mm (c, i), 2 mm (d), 10 cm (e, f).

____________________

Holen, S. R., T. A. Deméré, D. C. Fisher, R. Fullagar, J. B. Paces, G. T. Jefferson, J. M. Beeton, R. A. Cerutti, A. N. Rountrey, L. Vescera, and K. A. Holen. 2017. A 130,000-year-old archaeological site in southern California, USA. Nature 544:479-483.

 

 

112 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Sub

    • Mark Reaume
      Posted April 26, 2017 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      sub

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted April 26, 2017 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

        Indeed

  2. Posted April 26, 2017 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    sub

  3. busterggi
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    No evidence, just my gut but I think humans (including pre-sapiens) probably got around a lot more than we know as yet. Wandering is just such a human thing to do.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted April 26, 2017 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

      It is practically certain that the oldest known fossil of anything (species, or behaviour) is not a fossil of the earlies occurrence of that species, or behaviour. You really have to date a number of ealry occurrences, and do some statistics to account for the randomnesses of preservation, search and discovery.
      But even at my work, people look askance at me when I refer to FDOs and LDOs of fossils, structures or lithotypes. And they’re people paid to be aware of such subtleties. (That’s First Downhole Occurrence or Last DO; and do you really want to go into the types of sample contamination in drilling oil wells?)

      • Newish Gnu
        Posted April 26, 2017 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

        I googled FDO and LDO but I’m not sure I understand. FDO seemed to be related to extinction. So what’s LDO?

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted April 27, 2017 at 9:09 am | Permalink

          @Newish Gnu
          FDO First Downhole Occurrence [Top] LDO Last Downhole Occurrence [Bottom]

          So if you’ve got an index fossil that you’re using for [say] dating a layer in your drilled hole then as you go down through the layers you’ll have an FDO for that index fossil & then deeper down you’ll have an LDO.

          A good example is dating by the use of marine foraminifera fossils of which there are at least 50,000 species [mostly extinct]! I believe you can use these tiny shelled protists as markers to establish a date & general conditions [water temp?] for a particular layer. I suppose any given layer will have a distinct ‘fingerprint’ mix of species, but I’m guessing since I’m not a drillologist like Mr. Gravel.

  4. Stephen Barnard
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    The North American megafauna extinction may have been more extensive than was thought, including a species of Homo.

    • nicky
      Posted April 26, 2017 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

      Modern human ‘colonisation’ is associated with megafaunal extinction. AFAIK there was no megafaunal extinction 130 to 100 000 years ago. The extinction argument (at this stage) is against this being signs of modern humans.

      • nicky
        Posted April 26, 2017 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

        Of course, the authors do not claim modern humans.

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted April 26, 2017 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

        My point was that some of the megafauna that modern humans exterminated in North America may have been a species of Homo.

        • nicky
          Posted April 27, 2017 at 5:11 am | Permalink

          Yes, that is, if there were indeed ‘archaics present, probable.

        • Posted April 27, 2017 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

          Even if so, they weren’t megafauna, by the definition of the word…

          • Posted April 27, 2017 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

            Hunh?

            If humans aren’t large enough for you to see with your unaided eye, you may want to make an appointment with your ophthalmologist….

            (N.b.: “megafauna” doesn’t refer exclusively to huge beasties like blue whales or apatosaurs. There might be some fuzziness at the lower end of the size boundary, but cottontails and coyotes and roadrunners are all emphatically considered megafauna, despite all being considerably smaller than a juvenile human of pretty much any species I’m aware of.)

            Cheers,

            b&

            >

            • Posted April 28, 2017 at 10:11 am | Permalink

              Oh dear, that’s what I get for opening my trap. Somehow always assumed megafauna referred tp particularly large animals. Makes sense when you consider the greek and latin root words used. I wouldn’t consider humans to be mega, but I suppose all things are relative.

  5. Tom
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I am no expert but I think something is wrong with this paper.
    Not only early tools but crushed animal bones and a date of 130,0000 BP (a nicely rounded 10 times the age of previous evidence)all conveniently at a previously undisturbed site in sunny California?

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted April 26, 2017 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

      The site was being destroyed for building [something, allegedly important] when the fossils were discovered, work suspended, and the site excavated. I assume that the site and it’s surrounds are now unrecoverable under concrete.

  6. Posted April 26, 2017 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I’m skeptical. I don’t see how they’re connecting the date of the mastodon bone with the date that they were broken by humans. It seems just as plausible that the first humans to arrive in North America (~20,000 years ago) found some much older bones and smashed them up. This is consistent with the fact that there is no evidence of butchery on the bones, which would obviously be the case if there was no flesh to butcher, had it all rotted away by the time the humans found it.

    • Posted April 26, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      It seems just as plausible that the first humans to arrive in North America (~20,000 years ago) found some much older bones and smashed them up.

      I’m no expert, but I’d presume that 100-kyr-old bones would break and splinter differently from fresh bones?

      • Lars
        Posted April 26, 2017 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

        Yes, very much so. How a bone breaks will depend, all else being equal, upon how much collagen is in the matrix, and collagen rots very quickly. Older bones just shatter, if they haven’t crumbled first.

        • Posted April 26, 2017 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

          Fair point, although I doubt anyone’s really tried smashing up an ancient bone to see exactly how they break – they’re far too valuable!

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted April 26, 2017 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

          From TFP :

          Initial attempts to date the CM site using radiocarbon analysis at two independent laboratories failed, because the samples lacked sufficient collagen 13. Several attempts to date the site with optically stimulated luminescence indicated that samples were near or beyond the upper limits of dose saturation, and that the depositional age of the sediment is greater than 60–70 thousand years (kyr) (Supplementary Information 7). Subsequently, multiple bone fragments (Extended Data Fig. 9e–g) were analysed by uranium-series disequilibrium methods (Methods and Supplementary Information 8). P

          (I’m sure I’ll be using that quote again.)

          • GBJames
            Posted April 27, 2017 at 7:34 am | Permalink

            Thanks, Aidan. It does help to be able to read more than the abstract of a paper!

            I remain skeptical, although I must admit that my skepticism is mostly based on broader context. This is so far outside of the consensus “first North American humans” understanding that I can’t bring myself to be convinced it is correctly interpreted. I’ve been long enough away from actually doing archaeology that I must leave a critique of dating methods to others.

            130,000 years ago would have been during the Illinoian glaciation. I would think any humans would have needed to have already been on the continent before that glaciation since there was pretty massive ice coverage at the time and I doubt homo was boating it around ice sheets yet. But possible, I suppose.

            • eric
              Posted April 27, 2017 at 7:49 am | Permalink

              AIUI, glaciation is less of a barrier than travel over water. Thus glaciation 130k years ago would not be inconsistent with the hypothesis that hominids traveled to North America.

              But it certainly is a remarkable claim, and I think we’re fully justified in being somewhat skeptical until other groups get a look at the same materials, or other supporting materials are found.

              Given the extent of N.A. archaeology and that this is the first find, I would hazard a guess that the best hypothesis that fits the data is that some hominids made it over here but didn’t prosper/make it, and died off fairly quickly. I think the idea that tool using hominids made it here, lived here for 100,000 years, and then were driven to extinction by the homo sapiens that came later is really inconsistent with the (lack of) artifacts discovered around north America.

              • GBJames
                Posted April 27, 2017 at 8:08 am | Permalink

                I pretty much agree with that. I’d add, however, that the Illinoian glaciation was (unless I’m off-base) bigger than the later Wisconsin glaciation, without an “ice-free corridor”. People would probably have needed water-craft of some sort to navigate along the edges of the continent. But this is all pretty speculative.

            • tomh
              Posted April 27, 2017 at 11:35 am | Permalink

              Around 130kya sea level was low enough for a land bridge to emerge from the Bering Strait. It’s when bison first migrated to North America, and there’s no reason to think humans couldn’t have done the same.

              • GBJames
                Posted April 27, 2017 at 11:49 am | Permalink

                I thought bison migrations happened, back and forth, between 500,000 and 250,000 years ago.

              • tomh
                Posted April 27, 2017 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

                Carl Zimmer mentions it in his NYT article.

                There’s also this paper, (unpaywall doesn’t work), which, “identified two waves of bison dispersal into North America from Asia, the earliest of which occurred 195–135 thousand y ago,”

    • rickflick
      Posted April 26, 2017 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

      I don’t understand. Why would homonins break up bones too old to have any nutritive value?

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted April 26, 2017 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

        The breakage characteristics indicate that the bones were fresh when broken.
        Old bone may still be suitable for tool-making. We do know that “primitive” people were very sophisticated in their materials science, even if they didn’t have a word for “science”. Or “material”.

      • Posted April 26, 2017 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

        Breaking fresh bone is done to extract marrow. This is very nutrient dense.

        • rickflick
          Posted April 26, 2017 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

          evograd’s comment suggested they were old when broken. Not likely I’d say.

  7. Merilee
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  8. mikeyc
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Just read the paper. Far outside my area of expertise but I am certain that this extraordinary claim will not be widely accepted. But totally cool if more and better evidence supports the idea.

    The evidence is scant – both the set of bones and the rocks thought to be responsible, including fragments of the rocks the authors interpret as chips knocked off by the hammer and anvil techniques presumed to used, were tracked back to the parent rock. The bones show similarity to large mammal bones crushed using presumably similar techniques. There was no evidence the bones were butchered so they conclude the “Homo” species was after the Mastodon marrow. The dating seems problematic as well – though again, outside my expertise- as it relies on assumptions about “.. post-burial U-uptake by diffusion and adsorption”.

    • W.Benson
      Posted April 26, 2017 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      The evidence is not compelling to say the least.

  9. Mark Perew
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  10. Posted April 26, 2017 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    My first instinct for a gut-check reaction would be to ask how the technology demonstrated by these tools compares with the technology demonstrated by the tools of African contemporaries.

    And…hasn’t there been extensive genetic analysis of modern aboriginal Americans?

    If hominins made it to the Americas that long ago, one would expect a steady migratory flow on geologic timescales since then…and I’m just not aware of any evidence for anything like that.

    Count me as a skeptic. If this holds up, a lot of textbooks will be rewritten, and that would be most exciting. But the wastebasket of science history is brimming with equally-exciting and provocative “discoveries” that never actually panned out.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • JohnW
      Posted April 26, 2017 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      This find would predate modern humans outside of Africa. A member of the genus homo could have left such evidence and not contributed to the gene pool of later arrivals. All archaic hominins appear to have existed in small bands that could easily have vanished without any genetic trace. But I too am very skeptical.

      • somer
        Posted April 26, 2017 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

        +1

    • Richard Bond
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 4:16 am | Permalink

      Tools from Olorgesailie in Kenya that cannot be younger than 200K years look much more advanced. The toolmakers were almost certainly Homo erectus.

      • Dave
        Posted April 27, 2017 at 5:43 am | Permalink

        In the Natural History Museum, London, I’ve seen and handled stone hand-axes from sites in Britain over 400,000 years old. They are superbly crafted instruments that could not possibly be mistaken for naturally-broken stones, but were clearly conceived by thinking minds and made by dextrous hands. They are the stone-age equivalent to Paley’s watch – clear evidence of a creative intelligence. Similar stone tools are found over most of Africa, Asia and Europe, and they were in use for hundreds of thousands of years. They show that humans (of some kind) were active in many parts of the Old World where little or no direct fossil evidence has come to light. The reason is obvious. Early Homo had only one skull to leave behind after death, but in his/her lifetime could have made and discarded thousands of tools. And unlike bones, stone tools aren’t munched by hyenas or dissolved by groundwater. Stone tools are almost indestructible in most conditions, and most of those that were ever made are still out there somewhere.

        It seems to me that wherever humans lived across the Old World they left clear and abundant evidence of their handiwork. If they were also present in the New World at the date this new paper suggests, then wouldn’t it be equally obvious? People have been digging up Pleistocene fossils and looking for early man in North America since Thomas Jefferson’s time, and yet still the best evidence is a few unshaped rocks and some broken bones – which may or may not be connected. I think there’s a long way to go before the conventional date of human arrival in the Americas needs to be revised, although in the best traditions of science this paper will probably encourage other workers to start looking in times and places where the possibility of human presence would once have been thought impossible.

        • Posted April 27, 2017 at 6:42 am | Permalink

          Nice summary, thanks.

        • eric
          Posted April 27, 2017 at 8:06 am | Permalink

          It seems to me that wherever humans lived across the Old World they left clear and abundant evidence of their handiwork. If they were also present in the New World at the date this new paper suggests, then wouldn’t it be equally obvious? People have been digging up Pleistocene fossils and looking for early man in North America since Thomas Jefferson’s time…

          I think you are right. This find in isolation is IMO not consistent with hominids ‘colonizing’ North America. Maybe it indicates a few made it over and died within a few hundred years. Or maybe it’s not good evidence of anything.

        • Posted April 27, 2017 at 10:28 am | Permalink

          Thanks, everybody, for the analysis and discussion.

          This, in particular, from Dave, gets to the heart of what I was groping towards:

          In the Natural History Museum, London, I’ve seen and handled stone hand-axes from sites in Britain over 400,000 years old. They are superbly crafted instruments that could not possibly be mistaken for naturally-broken stones, but were clearly conceived by thinking minds and made by dextrous hands.

          It would seem to me that, regardless of stylistic variations, one would expect tools made at this site to be at least as technologically sophisticated as those made by Old World peers. Indeed, my own expectation would be for New World technology to be, if anything, more advanced.

          After all, it takes considerable resources even today for people to migrate across the ocean, and, even today, you almost never get the lowest achievers making the effort. Overwhelmingly, it’s the best and the brightest, or the wealthiest, or the most motivated, who manage the feat. Even in famous cases of “boat people” refugees — it’s the ones with the courage and stamina and drive to make such a crossing with zero resources that make it even as countless others remain behind. Not uncommonly, an entire family will pool its resources just to send one or two representatives, their best hope for the future.

          So I would find it most remarkable, indeed, that some ancient hominin managed to make an intercontinental voyage but lacked the sophistication to make the very sorts of tools that would have been then considered indispensable for survival.

          …and I think it’s also worth noting that humans aren’t the only animals known to use bare-bones primitive tools, such as a rock as a bludgeon. I think I’d sooner believe that another mastodon used such a rock in its trunk than that this was an hominin….

          Cheers,

          b&

          >

          • neil
            Posted April 27, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

            Maybe Bigfoot did it!

            • Posted April 27, 2017 at 11:42 am | Permalink

              Not Bigfoot — Elvis! Before he left the building, of course….

              b&

              >

            • busterggi
              Posted April 27, 2017 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

              Ameranthropoides loysii

    • Nicholas K.
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      Not only does this site predate modern humans out of Africa, but the two Hominin species present in Asia at the time (H. erectus and Denisovans) are not recognized by a distinct stone tool culture. H. erectus in Asia made rather different looking stone tools compared to H. erectus in Europe or Africa (in part due to difference in raw materials). I would not necessarily expect that if any of these Hominins made their way to North America that they maintained the same stone tool traditions over what must have been a long journey that may have taken several generations.

      So the lack of any similarity in stone tools between this site and Asia or later people in North America is not a deal-breaker.

      • Dave
        Posted April 27, 2017 at 8:41 am | Permalink

        Yes, I’m sure that’s true. However, I think that if humans of some kind had established themselves in North America over 100 kyr ago, we’d still expect to find plentiful evidence in the form of unequivocal stone tools in deposits of that age, even if the tools themselves differed from those used in the Old World. Much later, Clovis spear points are a uniquely American design but they prove beyond doubt that humans were present in the New World.

        The jury is obviously still out and likely to stay out for some time to come!

        • Nicholas K.
          Posted April 27, 2017 at 9:13 am | Permalink

          Yes, I agree that if any Hominins were in North America 100 ky ago there would be some unequivocal stone tools somewhere. I just saw a video on the stone spheres at this site, and I am not convinced.

          There are several instances in the past where people thought they had sites that demonstrated human occupation in Americas more than about 15 ky ago. Louis Leakey himself was taken in by unusual rock fracture patterns seen at Calico Hill in California. He was no expert on stone tools (Mary was, and she dismissed the site). There are other examples. All eventually dismissed for good reason.

  11. JohnW
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Interesting find, will read the paper tonight, though I do see from the associated summary article that the remains were water-deposited, so placement within dateable strata may be questionable? The oldest modern human remains outside Africa are in Israel and date to @ 60 kya. Genomic evidence suggests as early as 70 kya for the exit of the ancestors of the Australian/Papuan aborigine ancestors from Africa. So if indeed these tools are genuine it would seem likely that they may have found evidence for the arrival of our genus in the Americas (i.e., Homo erectus or heidelbergensis (or Denisovans for that matter), rather than what we typically think of as ‘humans”. Will be interesting to see how this develops.

  12. Posted April 26, 2017 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The evidence provided by these researchers is not even ordinary.

    • nicky
      Posted April 26, 2017 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

      Darwinwins, that is exactly the point I wanted to make. You beat me to it.

  13. Curt Nelson
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    I would think that with all of the Americas at their disposal any humans getting here would have survived a long time (or forever). Whatever the climate threw at them they could have gone south, and with no other types of human they would have been safe.

    That such early humans went extinct seems strange.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted April 26, 2017 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

      That does strike me as strange too. But very definitely not impossible.
      This site isn’t incompatible with a scenario like : a couple of “Peking Man” fishermen in a boat getting storm-tossed every few decades for 50,000 years, and surviving to die in “America” several years later.

      • Curt Nelson
        Posted April 26, 2017 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

        I figure that such archeological evidence is like a fossil, very rarely captured. Each one implies a multitude that were not preserved. So it would be quite unlikely that such a site was the result of a rare landing on the continent.

  14. Rambler
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Nature has a video about it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyfSsgCrjb0

    • Posted April 26, 2017 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      Thank you; I’ve added that to the post above.

    • Posted April 26, 2017 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

      Very reasonable discussion of the findings in that video.

  15. Dave
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    I have only a layman’s interest in this, and no expertise to judge the validity of the taphonomic or dating evidence, but I think qualified scepticism is justified unless/until more evidence is forthcoming. At a date of ~130,000 years ago, the evidence for early humans (of probably several species) across Europe, Asia and Africa is abundant and unquestionable. Hominid skeletal remains from that period may be relatively rare, but there are literally thousands and thousands of beautifully-made Acheulean hand-axes and other stone tools in the world’s museums testifying to the existence of their makers. I think there are thousands of them from Britain alone, which was very much at the edge of the human world at the time, and presumably had only a very sparse population.

    If humans were in the Americas at the same time, why don’t we see a similar abundance of stone tool evidence? North America has an extremely rich mammal fossil record extending throughout the Pleistocene, so scientists have obviously dug into plenty of sediments and cave deposits of the right age, but still there’s no unequivocal sign of humans being there until about 14,000 years ago, and evidence only starts to become abundant with the appearance of the Clovis culture about a thousand years or so after that.

    Having said all that, I think it would be great if this discovery was supported by more evidence, and we really do have to “rewrite the textbooks”. As with the discovery of the Flores “hobbits”, it’s the most unexpected and surprising discoveries that throw up new questions and make us revise everything we thought we “knew”!

    • JohnW
      Posted April 26, 2017 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      Well said.

    • Posted April 26, 2017 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

      You may be a layman, but your view seems right to me. If early humans (~ H. erectus) came well into California, other populations would have stretched up north. They would have not all just died out living on this continent with all that abundance.
      I need to see some hand axes. That would get a lot more attention.

      • GBJames
        Posted April 26, 2017 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, a hand axe would do the trick. Properly dated.

    • Beth Clarkson
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      While I can’t say what’s true about this, I can give an answer to this question “If humans were in the Americas at the same time, why don’t we see a similar abundance of stone tool evidence?”

      Because an abundance of stone tool evidence would imply an abundance of humans to produce them. Since we don’t have that, it’s reasonable to conclude that there was never a large population here at that time.

      Instead, what is speculated is that some hominids arrived here and did not flourish but died out relatively quickly. That scenario would comport with a single discovery of their tools at a single location.

      • Posted April 27, 2017 at 11:21 am | Permalink

        Instead, what is speculated is that some hominids arrived here and did not flourish but died out relatively quickly. That scenario would comport with a single discovery of their tools at a single location.

        But such a scenario is, itself, one that one should be highly skeptical of.

        For it to be an isolated occurrence, there must be something peculiar to this scenario that made it possible that didn’t apply to any other similar scenarios.

        Which means that we’re to conclude that, 130KYBP a lone tribe had the wherewithal to make an intercontinental migration, but none of the other tribes for ten thousand generations in either direction did…and, to boot, this one special tribe is using technology that was already obsolete half a million years ago.

        So what was so special about them that the managed to make the trip? And what was so difficult about the migration that no others were able to accomplish the feat?

        Considering the degree of sampling we’ve already performed of the search space, we should reasonably conclude that anything we find is representative of something that happened relatively frequently. It’s not like we’re sitting down to our first night of poker and being dealt a royal flush; it’s much more like we’re accomplished pros at a poker tournament and we’re debating whether or not to draw against an inside straight. And most pros would know better than to do so….

        Cheers,

        b&

        >

        • GBJames
          Posted April 27, 2017 at 11:40 am | Permalink

          “… a lone tribe had the wherewithal to make an intercontinental migration…”

          It was Nephites, Ben! Why didn’t anyone think of that possibility?

          They definitely need to update that paper!

          • Posted April 27, 2017 at 11:43 am | Permalink

            Well, I suppose that pretty much everybody alive that long ago would have been a neophyte, by any reasonable definition….

            b&

            >

  16. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Has the vibe of superluminal neutrinos about it, but whoa if true!

  17. Posted April 26, 2017 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    My expert opinion is that Carl Zimmer has written about it and he says, kinda, nope.

    • Posted April 26, 2017 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      (Sorry for the embedded graphic.)

  18. Dave
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    From a quick look around the web, it seems that some members of the US archaeological community are deeply sceptical:

    https://www.buzzfeed.com/danvergano/mastodon-mash?utm_term=.rt9J2y727#.isoan0VnV

  19. GBJames
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I’m exceedingly skeptical.

    • Posted April 26, 2017 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      Did you read the paper?

      • GBJames
        Posted April 26, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

        I read as much as I could this side of the paywall. (Unpaywall doesn’t find any available copies.)

        One of the things I’ve learned over the years is not to trust extreme discovery claims in Archaeology. Chances are very good, IMO, that this won’t pan out. Advocates of >20,000 year humans in the New World have had a tough time making a convincing case for 40K years. 130K years is a number that invites great skepticism, IMO.

        • Posted April 26, 2017 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

          That jibes with a pattern I had been seeing. There had been this or that claim of pre-Clovis human sites way far south, and as far as I had heard they too were iffy at best.

          • loren russell
            Posted April 26, 2017 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

            I think the Monte Verde site in Chile and some of the California Channel Island sites are very solid evidence of a pre-Clovis incursion, presumably representing people primarily living off coastal resources, and with technology allowing rapid movement along the coast. [Note: I’ve been following the “coastal hypothesis” for years, since I’ve been working on an insect associated with glacial refugia along the Alaskan and BC coasts.]

            The pre-Clovis sites mentioned above account for an initial presence south of interior Alaska extending only to 15-20kya. Lots of other sites but much more problematic, and the problems increase with increasing age.

            Futher, the DNA of indigenous American populations is notoriously uniform and fits a rather late dispersal from ne Asia with a very severe genetic bottleneck. The older human remains [to about 10kya] tested to date fit in very well with contemporary indigenous populations.

            Furhter, any very early human presence– certainly any at 100+kya — is presumptively representative of an earlier “archaic” Homo — whether archaic sapiens, Denisovan, erectus or some other, presently unknown entity. And there seems to be no evidence whatsoever of introgression taking place with an “archaic” population within the Americas.

            Of course an early incursion could have left no issue. But given the resources of the Americas, they would have to have been Ark B telephone sanitizers to go extinct! Or too elusive to join the NA gene pool, eg, sasquatch.

            Case not proven.

          • Posted April 27, 2017 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

            I read the book “1491” by Charles Mann and he indicated that pre-Clovis sites are now widely accepted among archaeologists. I don’t have the expertise to evaluate his credibility, but the book was very popular and I don’t remember seeing it get the criticism that you would expect if he were spouting crank theories.

            That being said, the existence of pre-Clovis peoples doesn’t have any bearing on whether there were hominids in the Americas 130,000 years ago.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted April 26, 2017 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

          TFP

          • Posted April 26, 2017 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

            Your link does not compute for me.

            • Zetopan
              Posted May 1, 2017 at 2:11 am | Permalink

              That link works for me.

  20. Nicholas K.
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Intriguing idea — Denisovans could have made it to North America. Bison did, and the Denisovans were in Siberia. But, while the dates seem high-quality, the stone “tools” are very questionable. The bone breakage is unconvincing. Interesting, but unconvincing.

    Claiming human occupation on the basis of bone breakage alone is very questionable, and this is something I have great expertise in and much experience with.

    • JohnW
      Posted April 26, 2017 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      If the claim were true, why Denisovans rather than Homo erectus?

      • Dave
        Posted April 27, 2017 at 6:32 am | Permalink

        It’s worth noting that “Denisovans” are an entity that we currently know only as a string of DNA. The original fossil that produced the “Denisovan” sequence, and first alerted us to their existence, was just a tiny finger-bone that tells us very little about the owner. I think it’s been suggested that some other fossils from East Asia may also represent this population, but until we find good skeletal remains that yield good “Denisovan” DNA, we don’t really know what “Denisovans” looked like. In contrast, we have a good idea of what Homo erectus looked like, but the fossils from Java, China and elsewhere are far too old to yield any surviving DNA. Perhaps future discoveries will show that “Denisovans” actually were late-surviving Homo erectus, or an entirely different species – we’ll just have to wait and see.

        • Nicholas K.
          Posted April 27, 2017 at 8:10 am | Permalink

          The DNA from Denisovans already shows they were a distinct population from contemporary Neanderthals. There are also bits of what appear to be more ancient DNA in those samples, which may be a glimpse at the H. erectus genome. Of course, we cannot yet say what they looked like, especially in comparison to H. erectus, but the population was geographically widespread and present in Siberia (where H. erectus is not known) which makes them a more likely candidate for having crossed over to North America (as bison did) 130 ky ago. There was a recent paper on 2 partial fossil skulls from mainland China that do not fit classic H. erectus and they are good candidates for Denisovan.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted April 26, 2017 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

      I have had a quick scan of the paper, and don’t have time to read it properly until, probably tomorrow evening.
      I started deeply sceptical of the dating. I’m less sceptical now, but it IS a novel extension of a well-established technique, and I don’t know how well-founded some of their models are. I’m going to have to read the Supp.Info carefully, tomorrow.
      But one thing that is pictured in the paper, but I don’t think is commented on in the text : “Figure 3 | Cobble refits. Distribution of rock refits (red and green lines indicate refits), hammerstones (CM-423 and CM-7) and anvils (CM-281 and CM-114).”
      Look at the splay lines from one hammerstone to it’s fragments : going from SW to NNE…ENE. Look at the other splay : from E to W…SW. That isn’t compatible with any natural transport mechanism I can think of. Same goes for one of the tusks being shoved point-down into the ground, disturbing the existing sediment layering. (Corollary – for a “rescue archaeology” context, someone did some damned fine fieldwork to spot that!)

      But it’s an hour past bed time, and I don’t have time to read it properly. I’m sceptical on general principles, but it looks very like an archaeological site (species un-speculated) rather than an animal predation site. And I don’t see and gaping holes in the dating (well, it got past Nature’s reviewers), though it is a novel application of an established technique.

      • Posted April 27, 2017 at 6:50 am | Permalink

        Looking forward to your further analysis.

        • Posted April 27, 2017 at 6:59 am | Permalink

          I may not be capable of judging, as this is not my field. The paper was peer-reviewed, mind you, so at least several experts think the claim is worth following up, even if it proves not to be credible. This is really above my pay grade, and I may ultimately write about the consensus of experts–if one coalesces!

          • Nicholas K.
            Posted April 27, 2017 at 8:12 am | Permalink

            I agree — it is a reasonable hypothesis and a site that is more than a little interesting. But, the evidence is still very scant. The main criticism I’ve seen from people with more expertise is that they do not go far enough to rule out other plausible mechanisms that may have formed this site.

  21. AlanF
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Irrespective of the paper’s validity, and from my amateur viewpoint, it wouldn’t surprise me if in the long run it’s found that ancient humans were far more widespread than is accepted today. Look at the distribution of what have been called “archaic Homo sapiens” in time and space, like the Petralona and Broken Hill skulls, etc., over ~1 million years plus. Humans seem always to have been extremely mobile.

  22. Kevin
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    It’s possible a few came, very quickly, and did not last long.

  23. Hempenstein
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Timely for me since I’m about 20% of the way into David Meltzer’s First Peoples in a New World. From it, I gather that these sorts of claims are fairly frequent.

    In any event, I think his opinion would carry a lot of weight.

  24. Posted April 26, 2017 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    I’m… skeptical. The evidence itself does not seem to be enough. It is too vague and singular. I need a pattern. I need more than one site. And I need a bloody hand axe. C’mon, humans were making that tool by the bushel by then. Some bones of these humans would be especially nice.

  25. Dale Franzwa
    Posted April 27, 2017 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    Why wouldn’t ancient humans come to So Cal? Great climate, terrific fishing (those bones could have been fish hooks). After spending most of my working life in the winter snow and ice of the eastern US, I came back (for both the climate and the fishing).

    • Dave
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 6:56 am | Permalink

      A fossilised surfboard will settle the matter beyond all doubt!

      • Posted April 27, 2017 at 8:49 am | Permalink

        Jave man, Peking man and now–Surfing Dude man.

        • JohnW
          Posted April 27, 2017 at 9:46 am | Permalink

          +1

          Homo spicoli

        • busterggi
          Posted April 27, 2017 at 10:35 am | Permalink

          No, that would only prove Galactus was here much earlier than suspected.

  26. Azcolvin429
    Posted April 27, 2017 at 2:56 am | Permalink

    This is a fantastic opportunity for Coyne (and others) to illustrate the way media distorts science and scientific findings. A quick google search shows mainstream news results bold headlines making ridiculous, concrete claims. “Humans migrated to America 100,000 years earlier than thoug,h”, “human migration theory needs a rewrite” “scientists wrong about how humans migrated to America”, et cetera. This is the kind of crap that fuels the creationists (and other pseudoscience conspiracy theorists) and helps convince the uninformed of their drivel.

    One paper was published. This does not rewrite science. This does not disprove all the previous models or theories. This does the even imply that the current model is incorrect (considering the genetic evidence is strong, at least for the modern population distribution). Scientists know this, journalists and non-science minded people don’t. Further evidence is needed and considerable in-depth analysis and scrutiny will ensue.

    Shocking new studies are always interesting, but are in no way a “rewriting” of science. It takes years, decades, or longer for scientific consensus to form; not to mention, a great deal of evidence.

    For those reading, use this as an opportunity to help educate people about the process of science and the importance of both evidence and the consilience of evidence.

    • Posted April 27, 2017 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      To be fair, most of the reports I’ve read about this have emphasized the doubters, too.

      • JohnW
        Posted April 27, 2017 at 8:32 am | Permalink

        Agree, but unfortunately a lot of folks don’t get past the headline. I’ve no doubt the Stormfront types, still bitter at the loss of Kennewick man as one of their own, will be all over this.

      • Andrew Colvin
        Posted May 3, 2017 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

        That is very true. Many of the articles do discuss those who are skeptical. Just not in the headlines. Haha!

  27. Posted April 27, 2017 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    I almost fell off my chair when I saw this story…!

  28. Sigmund
    Posted April 27, 2017 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    I’m amazed the authors didn’t consider the obvious alternative explanation: Noah flinging rocks at a late straggling Mastadon, who threated to capsize the ark as he attempted to clamber aboard in the manner of the Vietnamese civilians on the Hanoi embassy helicopter.
    On a more serious note, having read the paper, the dating looks solid but the evidence for tools not so much. There are stone tools that are more obviously of human origin that are millions of years older than these current candidates. Still, if it is true then confirmatory evidence might be found in current museum collections – for example scrape marks on bones from the same time period (or from earlier or later (up until 30,000 years before present).

    • Tom
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      I haven’t read the paper but the dating of 130,000 BP seems too suggestive of a mistake since a single zero being knocked off brings the dating down to accepted Clovis times.
      I understand that this was a discovery made at a construction site so my first thought was contamination, which is one reason archaeologists do not use unsupervised construction companies on their digs.

      • GBJames
        Posted April 27, 2017 at 10:34 am | Permalink

        Yeah… that’s usually a paleontologist’s error! 😉

  29. W.Benson
    Posted April 27, 2017 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    I raise four points against the tentative interpretation of a more ancient presence of humans in the New World:

    1. No unassailable sign of human presence in the New World (bones, worked artifacts such as stone spear and arrow points, beads, hearths, or cave artwork) has been found for the 100,000+ year span separating the new find from the conventionally accepted migration date of 15-20,000 years before present (to 25,000 years on the outside).

    2. Had humans been in N. America 130,000 years ago, how could their then limited hunting technology be used to bring down an adult mastodon? Why would they have even risked attacking a mastodon, with smaller wildlife plentiful? Their own population density would have been low and hunting technology inefficient such that human impact on easily harvested prey (deer, horses, camels, ground sloths, tapirs, peccaries, rabbits, squirrels, rats/mice, lizards, grasshoppers, etc — mammals from Wikipedia’s La Brea fossils list) would have been minimal.

    3. Having killed the mastodon (or possibly found it dead or dying), why did the hypothesized humans use only the bone marrow and carry heavy rocks who-knows-how-far to get at it? How did they fend off other meat-eaters such as possibly pack-hunting 60-70 kg dire wolves, common at the near-by La Brea Tar Pits where, by the way, ne’er a human bone older than 10,000 years has been registered?

    4. I am unaware of registers of humans in n.e. Siberia (a possible source of the hypothetical California-Man) as long as 130,000 years ago who might have crossed the Bering Strait at low water at the end of the penultimate ice age. This date long precedes man’s arrival (presumably by boats over tropical waters) in Australia.

    Not having read the article, I am operating under the premise that, because so many people that have read it are talking about it, if any evidence found for human presence was irrefutable, they would be shouting from the rooftops.

    • GBJames
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Regarding objection #2: You don’t need to kill a mastodon to eat it. You can wait for one to die of what-ever cause and then move safely in (except for having to contend with other scavengers). Which, of course, you anticipate for

      Objection #3: Groups of humans could use fire-sharpened sticks and other “invisible” (to us) weaponry to contend with competitors. After all, we did it for several million years in Africa.

      As for objection #4: I think an answer would be that we’re not talking modern humans here, but some kind of archaic homo.

      None of that represents my support for the 130000 humans-in-New-World suggestion. I remain highly skeptical.

    • Sigmund
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      We know of other species, like bison, crossing the Behring land bridge in the last few hundred thousand years. It is at least possible that, for example, Denisovans or Neanderthals, who were present in Asia at that point, could have made the journey.
      The problem is that there is no additional evidence for their presence. There’s also no sign in Native American genomes of interbreeding with an archaic human so even if this current report is true the evidence would suggest a small population that died out before the recent (~13,000 years ago) modern human colonization of the Americas.

    • W.Benson
      Posted April 27, 2017 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

      Objection 5: How did the humans clean the flesh off the bones so they could be broken without leaving scrape marks? The bones, or some bones should have been gnawed by scavengers if people had waited for the flesh to be removed. It would have been a smelly mess for weeks.

      • GBJames
        Posted April 28, 2017 at 6:29 am | Permalink

        The case would be better if there were marks from bone-scraping. Maybe there were on parts of the bone that weren’t recovered. Ditto with gnaw marks from other scavangers. But the absence of these things isn’t by itself a case-closer.

        Not that this absent absence offers any support for the case, either.

  30. Posted April 27, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I’m another layman on all of this, so I look forward to hearing more arguments! Thanks to all for doing them!


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