NEW YORK—A startling new report asserts the first known Americans arrived much, much earlier than scientists thought, more than 100,000 years ago—and maybe they were Neanderthals.
If true, the finding would far surpass the widely-accepted date of about 15,000 years ago.
Researchers say a site in southern California shows evidence of human-like behaviour from about 130,000 years ago, when bones and teeth of an elephant-like mastodon evidently were smashed with rocks.
The earlier date means the bone-smashers were not necessarily members of our own species, Homo sapiens.
The researchers speculate these early Californians instead could have been species known only from fossils in Europe, Africa, and Asia: Neanderthals, a little-known group called Denisovans, or another human forerunner named Homo erectus.
“The very honest answer is we don't know,” said Steven Holen, lead author of the paper and director of the non-profit Center for American Paleolithic Research in Hot Springs, S.D.
No remains of any individuals were found.
Whoever they were, they could have arrived by land or sea. They might have come from Asia via the Beringea land bridge that used to connect Siberia to Alaska, Holen said in a telephone interview.
Or maybe come across by watercraft along the Beringea coast or across open water to North America, before turning southward to California, he added.
Holen and others present their evidence in a paper released this week by the journal “Nature.” Not surprisingly, the report was met by skepticism from other experts who don't think there is enough proof.
The research dates back to the winter of 1992-3. The site was unearthed during a routine dig by researchers during a freeway expansion project in San Diego.
Analysis of the find was delayed to assemble the right expertise, said Tom Demere, curator of paleontology at the San Diego Natural History Museum, another author of the paper.
The “Nature” analysis focuses on remains from a single mastodon, and five stones found nearby.
The mastodon's bones and teeth evidently were placed on two stones used as anvils, and smashed with three stone hammers, to get at nutritious marrow and create raw material for tools.
Patterns of damage on the limb bones looked like what happened in experiments when elephant bones were smashed with rocks.
And the bones and stones were found in two areas, each roughly centered on what's thought to be an anvil.
They weren't hand-crafted tools, Demere noted. The users evidently found them and brought them to the site.
The excavation also found a mastodon tusk in a vertical position, extending down into older layers, which may indicate it had been jammed into the ground as a marker or to create a platform, Demere said.
Experts not connected with the study provided a range of reactions.
“If the results stand up to further scrutiny, this does indeed change everything we thought we knew,” said Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London.
Neanderthals and Denisovans are the most likely identities of the visitors, he added.
But “many of us will want to see supporting evidence of this ancient occupation from other sites, before we abandon the conventional model of a first arrival by modern humans within the last 15,000 years,” Stringer wrote in an e-mail.
Some other experts said the age estimate appears sound.
But some were skeptical that the rocks were really used as tools.
Vance Holliday, of the University of Arizona in Tucson, said the paper shows the bones could have been broken the way the authors assert, but they haven't demonstrated that's the only way.