Monte Verde is an archaeological site in southern Chile, currently situated some 35 miles (45 kilometers) east of the Pacific coast on Chinchihuapi Creek. It doesn’t look extraordinary, but discoveries made on both sides of this little creek are shaking up the archaeological world. After twenty years of challenges from doubting archaeologists, especially those supporting the Clovis First theory, the evidence from Monte Verde still supports the thesis that this site was occupied by humans at least 14,800 years ago, which makes it the oldest widely accepted site of human habitation in the Americas.
The site, incredibly well-preserved by a bog, challenges many – make that almost all – of our preconceptions about ancient explorers in the Americas. And it raises many questions without easy answers.
Is the site 14 ,800 years old – or more than twice that old?
The oldest human habitation date that archaeologist and anthropologist Tom Dillehay suggested – and subsequently defended against loud criticism from fellow American archaeologists – was 14,800 years ago, the date he and his colleague, geologist Mario Pino, connected with the bottom layer of the first excavation. In this area, they found stone artifacts including points, bola stones, and a drill, the remains of wood frame structures apparently covered in hides and floored with rough planks, ropes and knots, two large fire pits, animal bones and fur, remains of tubers, seeds, nuts, berries, mushrooms, seaweed, algae, and leaves. The finds included 15 species of aquatic plants and 45 other plant species. It was an extraordinary discovery.
But it was complicated by an even more extraordinary find just the other side of the creek, where Dillehay and Pino found stone tools and evidence of hearths that were over 30,000 years old. Dillehay knew that 14,800 year old date would be extremely controversial, so he chose to effectively ignore the earlier finds.
“I don’t yet see any reason to believe people were in the Americas and that far south 30,000 years ago,” Dillehay remarked. In his report, he acknowledged the presence of the stone tools and carbon scatters consistent with hearths but refused to make the much earlier claim.
Mario Pino, on the other hand, did make the claim. So how old is Monte Verde? “There’s no doubt about the age – it’s 33,000 years old,” Pino said in a New York Times article in which he noted the age of the sediment layers bearing the apparent artifacts.
Now that most of the archaeological powers that be have reviewed the evidence of the first site and grudgingly accepted it, opinions are softening somewhat toward the older site. “We’ll open up that level and see what’s there,” Dillehay said in a more recent interview.
So Monte Verde is 33,000 years old – maybe, or 14,800 years old – probably – at least.
What does the variety of food and medicine found at Monte Verde say about the people?
Mastodon bones sticking out of a washed out riverbank first drew attention to the Monte Verde site. Experts estimate the animal that went with the tusk fragment weighed two tons. Finds also included a chunk of mastodon meat, remains of llama, shellfish, fish, small mammals, edible seeds, mushrooms, tubers, berries, stalks, and wild potatoes. In all, remains of 45 different plant species were found on site, over 20% of them originating over 150 miles away. Some of the plants came from the coast – 56 miles (90 km) to the west back then; others from marshes, forests, and arid grasslands. So either the people gathered food from very distant sources and brought it back to their village or they engaged in trade with other people in other locations. In either case, these people understood seasonal availability and enjoyed a varied diet.
And about all that seaweed …
At least nine different species of seaweed, both edible and medicinal, were originally found at the site. Later exploration of the site provided evidence of many more. Dillehay’s 2008 Nature paper indicates they found 19 seaweed species, five of which came from the coast. The following list includes some of the seaweed species discovered at the site, all of which are still used as a good source of minerals and protein, fertilizer, wound dressing, and medicine:
Durvillaea – a large kelp (“bull kelp”) found between Chile and Antarctica that is able to float because of air held within its honeycomb blades. It forms large rafts that can cross the open sea. It provides essential minerals and acts as an antioxidant. Currently, it’s used to promote heart and kidney health and to slow cellular degeneration associated with aging.
Porphyra – red/black algae from the south and west, edible. Called nori in Japan, it’s commonly used to wrap sushi. In Asian medicine, it’s combined with other seaweed species to treat goiter, cysts, tumors, lymph node swelling, liver and spleen enlargement. It’s currently the most valuable marine crop in Asia, worth over $1billion dollars.
Mazzaella – edible red, iridescent seaweed from the coast, currently used as a thickening agent and a commercial fertilizer
Sarcothalia (Luga negra) – currently harvested off the coast of Chile. David Horgen of Hawaii Pacific University is studying the ability of waixenicin A, a compound in Sarcothalia, to fight cancer.
The four species listed above are from west and south of Monte Verde.
Garcilaria – seaweed found in near shore tide pools and reef flats, believed have come from the Philippines and Hawaii, a sea vegetable with anti-viral qualities, currently used to fight herpes and HIV
Gigartina – near shore seaweed used as a sea vegetable. In medicine, it’s used as an anti-viral and immune booster, helpful in controlling skin lesions, herpes, and other infections.
The two species listed above come from the coast.
Currently, Gracilaria, Sarcothalia, Gigartina, and Porphyra are considered four of the most important seaweed species Chile harvests and sells. They’re used in the production of food and medicine, as well as fertilizers and filters.
Macrocystis – giant kelp, (photo left), an incredibly fast growing plant of cooler waters along the coast of North and South America, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. The plant’s long stalk, up to 160’ tall, is held up by a gas bladder. Large stands form kelp forests that support a wide range of wildlife. Rich in iodine and potassium, it’s long been used as a food source and wound dressing.
This seaweed grows offshore.
Sargassum – a seaweed originating in Japan, capable of surviving in a variety of habitats, including open water. Sargassum forms large floating mats at sea, which may explain how the species has successfully invaded shore areas around the world. Medicinally, it’s useful for treating goiter, tumor, pain, and swelling.
Sargassum is most commonly found in open water, not by the shore. Interestingly, most of these seaweeds come from the south and west of Monte Verde. Both Sargassum and Durvillaea form large floating mats that can cross open water. (photo, below)
Trentepohlia – a green alga (often appearing orange) that grows on tree trunks, buildings, and shore rocks. Recent research has shown it to be a powerful anti-microbial agent against five species of bacteria and five species of fungi, including agents of human, animal, and plant diseases, mycotoxin producers, and food spoilage agents.
What an interesting combination of plants! It seems we’re just now catching up with our relatives from long-ago in understanding their value.
While it’s impossible to infer their uses for all of these, we can be fairly sure they used some as medicine because of the “cuds” found at the site – partially chewed mixtures of plants still bearing the mark of the chewer’s upper palate.
These “cuds” suggest the people of Monte Verde were familiar with properties of different seaweed species. In addition, they went great distances and faced considerable difficulties of harvesting coastal and open water species. “This is suggestive of a fairly sophisticated knowledge of coastal ecosystems,” Dillehay remarked.
Or perhaps they traded with others who lived on the coast. Presence of material not found locally, such as quartz and tar, support the idea of a trade network. In 2007, the discovery of another site nearby, Pilauco Bajo, led to the theory that the two sites were associated. If Monte Verde was part of a trade network, it must have been the southern terminus. During the Ice Age, glaciers covered the southern tip of South America.
Question 3 – Where did the residents of Monte Verde come from?
This question brings up lots of other questions and even more arguments.
The Land Bridge Route
The most common theory of migration into the Americas involves the Land Bridge from Asia known as Beringia. According to this theory, the first people in the Americas walked across from Siberia to Alaska, following big game. From there, they found their way south and east through an ice-free corridor that opened up between mile-high ice sheets around 13,000 years ago. (Red line in map)
But see there’s a problem now, if a site in southern Chile is older than the ice-free corridor. Actually, the Beringia theory is so widely accepted that some archaeologists declared the Monte Verde dates to be impossible because they came before the Beringia dates.
The Coastal Route (pink line on map)
Then another theory surfaced – the coastal route. Harvard archaeologist Carol Mandryk said the ice-free corridor idea through Canada wouldn’t work because even after the ice sheets began to melt 13,000 years ago, vegetation would have been too scarce to support big game. Instead, she said, people came down the coast in small boats. In this case, people came from Asia but rather than walking, they took the sea route, hugging the edge of the coast and ice, until they reached what’s now Oregon, which was ice-free. From there, people populated the rest of the Americas.
But at 14,800 years old, Monte Verde predates the known sites in Oregon. Well, some argued, rising sea levels had covered all evidence of earlier passage. Or the bands of people were so small, they left no trace. They were “archaeologically invisible.”
The Kelp Highway
Proponents of the Kelp Highway hypothesis say that early explorers traveled by boat from Asia to South America following the kelp beds. This would explain the knowledge of different seaweed species, especially giant kelp, found at the Monte Verde site. However, giant kelp, Macrocystis, is typically found in open water rather than shallow coastal waters. “It was blown ashore in storms,” proponents explain.
The Solutrean Solution
Dr. Dennis Stanford, head of Archaeology of the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian, a former Clovis Firster, changed his mind and came up with what’s been called the Solutrean Solution, claiming that people from northern Spain/southern France brought advanced technologies like weaving, sewing, painting, atlatls, and stone work across the North Atlantic by taking boats north from Europe toward Greenland and then south, hugging the shore/ice until they reached modern-day southeastern USA. This Solutrean stonework then turned into the famous Clovis points that spread east to west across the continent with trade. (Solutrean path is marked in red on map)
An interesting theory – with many critics. However, in order for those people to reach Monte Verde, they would have had to go the length of the Americas and around the tip of South America to the west side, during the Ice Age, when the Patagonian ice sheet covered the whole area.
The West from Africa Route – The Pedra Furada Dilemma
Pedra Furada is actually a large cluster of sites in the Serra de Capivara Park near the northeast coast of Brazil. Its presence, and the tenacity of its principal investigator, Niede Guidon, have become a serious problem for the Clovis/Beringia theorists. Pedra Furada sites have consistently returned dates of 32,000 to 48,000 years ago. Since these did not fit with the Beringia theory, archaeologists from the US, in a terrible example of academic blindness and resentment, refused to consider it.
One look at Pedra Furada on a globe will show the closest land mass is – West Africa, not Asia. But this migration route would involve open water travel, which archaeologists seem reluctant to believe despite the evidence that people traveled over open water to Australia in an even earlier time period. Ocean currents and prevailing winds would take a boat traveler from West Africa directly to South America. Now a few maps include a west from Africa route, but not many.
But even the West Africa Route would not explain Monte Verde. The Andes stand in the way.
The South Pacific Route
If Monte Verde is indeed 33,000 years old, and the oldest date in North America is 20,000 younger, it seems to indicate some other migration route: across the South Pacific. This would explain the knowledge of open ocean seaweeds. Ocean currents would take people from the Pacific Islands south and then swing north as they neared South America. (Southernmost route marked on map)
Actually, a shocking discovery points exactly there.
According to a paper published in the journal Nature, April 2013, Polynesian DNA has been found in ancient Native American bones.
Molecular geneticist Sergio Pena analyzed DNA from teeth in skulls of Botocudo, indigenous people who lived in southeastern Brazil until they were eradicated by the Portuguese in the 1800s in an attempt to quell dissent.
(The drawing included here is a portrait of a Botocudo man made in 1875.) Fourteen Botocudo skulls were kept in a museum in Rio de Janeiro. To the scientists’ surprise, in two of the skulls, they found DNA indicating Polynesian ancestry. A second lab confirmed the findings. Pena remarked, “The most exciting potential explanation of the DNA findings is that ancestors of the Botocudo once interbred with those of Polynesians before the peopling of the Americas 15,000 – 20,000 years ago. Prior studies of skull shapes hinted that two distinct groups entered the Americas – one more Asian type seen now in the vast majority of extant Native Americas, and an earlier type seen in skeletons in Brazil and elsewhere that resembled some African groups, Australians, Melanesians, and Polynesians such as Easter Islanders.”
Loud debate erupted as soon as the news was released. Yet one of the most interesting parts of the discovery went unnoticed. DNA studies, on which we currently base our models of human colonization of the Americas, were – up until this study – based almost exclusively on living people. Thus any race that went extinct, such as the Botocudo and many others, would never be represented and their part of the story never told.
Easter Islanders have Polynesian DNA. Apparently Polynesian navigators found a small island about 2618 miles (4229 KM) from Tahiti. If ancient navigators could take on open ocean voyages to Easter Island, they could probably find a continent.
And yet, here’s the official response: “No scholars seriously consider the possibility that the early Americans landed first in South America. All linguistic, genetic and other evidence points to the Bering Strait as the most likely point of entry” (John Nobel Wilford). “No archaeologists seriously consider the possibility that the first Americans came by sea and landed first in South America.” (Charlie Hatchett).
Well, perhaps they should. And while they’re at it, perhaps they should consider the antiquity of sites in Pennsylvania, Texas, and South Carolina which predate sites on the west coast. Perhaps they should abandon their strange allegiance to a theory that has proven desperately incomplete on so many fronts.
What if the answer is many answers?
Evidence from Pedra Furada, Monte Verde, Topper Hill, Paisley Caves, Cactus Hill, and other sites points to multiple points of entry into the Americas, at different times. If so, the diagram would look something like the one above. Actually, it might have a lot more arrows on it.
Monte Verde gives us a new and very different view of early visitors to the Americas. Perhaps further research will answer some of the thorny questions Monte Verde has posed.
Sources and interesting reading:
Avila, Marcela, and others, “Economic feasibility of Sarcothalia cultivation” Hydrobiologia 16th International Seaweed Symposium, 1999.
Buschmann, Alejandro H. and others, “Seaweed cultivation, product development and integrated aquaculture studies in Chile,” World Aquaculture, (36) September 2005
Curry, Andrew. “Ancient migration”: Coming to America, Nature news feature, 2 May 2012, http://www.nature.com/news/ancient-migrations-coming-to-America-1.10562
Dillehay, Tom D. and others, “Monte Verde: Seaweed, Food, Medicine, and the Peopling of South America,” Science, 9 May 2008 (320) 764-786, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/320/5877/784. Or http://www.ncbi.nlm.nnih.gov/pubmed/18467586
“Durvillaea Antarctica,” Seaweed Industry Association, http://seaweedindustry.com/seaweed/type/durvillaea-antaractica
“Durvillaea Antarctica,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durvillaea_antarctica
“Edible seaweed,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edible_seaweed
“Evaluation of In Vitro Antioxidant and Antimicrobial Activities of Green Microalgae Trentepohlia umbrina,” ScienceAlerts.com http://sciencealerts.com/stories/2065293/
“Gracilaria,” Invasive Algae Database, http://www.bishopmuseum.org/algae/results3.asp
Hames, Raymond. “Chilean Field Yields New Clues to Peopling of Americas, New York Times, 25 August 1998, http://www.unl.edu/rhames/monte_verde/monte_verde1.htm
Hatchett, Charlie, “Monte Verde Excavation: or Clovis Police Beat a Retreat,” Archaeology Fieldwork.com, http://www.archaeologyfieldwork.com/afe/message/topic/2830/discussion/monte-verde
Hirst, Kris, “Monte Verde Photo Essay: Seaweed Exploitation at Monte Verde II” About.com Archaeology, http://archaeology.about.com/od/preclovissites/ss/monte_verde_4.htm
Hirst, Kris. “Pacific Coast Migration Model” About.com Archaeology, http://archaeology.about.com/od/
Hirst, Kris. “Kelp Highway Hypothesis: A variation on the Pacific coast migration model of colonizing America,” About.com Archaeology http://arcgaeology.about.com/od/kterms/pt/kelp_highway.htm
Lovgren, Stefan, Earliest Known American Settlers Harvested Seaweed,” National Geographic News, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/pf/15550150.html
“Macrocystis,” Natural History Museum, http://nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/species-of-the-day/biodiversity/climate-change/macrocystis
“Monte Verde Archaeological Site, UNESCO World Heritage Center, http://whc.unesco.org/
“Medicinal Uses,” The Seaweed Site: information on marine algae, http://www.seaweed.ie/uses_general/medicinal uses.php
“Monte Verde Archaeological Site,” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, http://whc.unesco.org/
“Monte Verde,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monte_Verde
Oppenheimer, Stephen. “Archaeological Evidence in South America that humans crossed into the Americas before the Ice Age,” The Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/journey/clovis-text.html
“Pedra Furada sites,” Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedra_Furada_sites
Rose, Mark. “The Importance of Monte Verde,” Archaeology, 18 October 1999 http://archive.archaeology.org/online/feautres/clovis/rose1.html
“Sargassum muticum, Wireweed,” The Seaweed Site: information on marine algae, maintained by M.D. Guiry, 2000 – 2014.
“Sargassum,” Wilipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sargassum
“Science dean continues research at National Cancer Institute-designated facility,” Hawaii Pacific University News, March 2013 http://www.hpu.edu/HPUNews/2013/03
“Seaweed confirms Monte Verde dates, but also migration patterns?” Geotimes, July 2008, http://geotimes.org/july08/
Swaminathan, Nikhil, “America, in the Beginning,” Archaeology, Secptember/October 2014, 22-29