Recent scientific findings date their arrival earlier than ever thought, sparking hot debate among archaeologists
By Guy Gugliotta
For much of its length, the slow-moving Aucilla River in northern Florida flows underground, tunneling through bedrock limestone. But here and there it surfaces, and preserved in those inky ponds lie secrets of the first Americans.
For years adventurous divers had hunted fossils and artifacts in the sinkholes of the Aucilla about an hour east of Tallahassee. They found stone arrowheads and the bones of extinct mammals such as mammoth, mastodon and the American ice age horse.
Then, in the 1980s, archaeologists from the Florida Museum of Natural History opened a formal excavation in one particular sink. Below a layer of undisturbed sediment they found nine stone flakes that a person must have chipped from a larger stone, most likely to make tools and projectile points. They also found a mastodon tusk, scarred by circular cut marks from a knife. The tusk was 14,500 years old.
The age was surprising, even shocking, for it suddenly made the Aucilla sinkhole one of the earliest places in the Americas to betray the presence of human beings. Curiously, though, scholars largely ignored the discoveries of the Aucilla River Prehistory Project, instead clinging to the conviction that America’s earliest settlers arrived more recently, some 13,500 years ago. But now the sinkhole is getting a fresh look, along with several other provocative archaeological sites that show evidence of an earlier human presence in the Americas, perhaps much earlier.
Such methods also will help illuminate how and where Native Americans were enslaved in the early centuries of Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the New World.
In an early 16th-century cemetery in southeastern Cuba called El Chorro de Maita, archaeologists found 133 people in 108 burials. This is the only cemetery in Cuba known to include native Taino people, according to Roberto Valcarcel Rojas at the Netherlands’ University of Leiden, who has studied the remains and artifacts.
Isotope analysis suggests that individuals came from West Africa and Mesoamerica, as well as from Cuba. The Mesoamericans may be from Mayan populations on the Yucatan peninsula, and their presence in Cuba points to a European-run slave trade that included today’s Mexico as well as Africa.