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Chile or Bust: Tracing the path of the first Americans

New finds from Oregon and Chile support the idea that they arrived 3,000 years earlier than previously thought.

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The finds have some intriguing implications, Dr. Dillehay says. The variety of plant, seaweed, and animal remains found, along with the site's riverside location, suggest that the Monte Verdeans had lived there long enough to develop a detailed understanding of the range of food and medicinal resources available to them from the coast well into the mountains. That could imply that early immigrants moved south far more slowly than some have suggested – coming to terms with their current location before moving to another one.

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Just as intriguing, he says, is plant material found, native to Patagonia, on the eastern side of the Andes. "So, they're cutting through the mountains into the dry steppes of Argentina," he says. "That could happen as a result of long foraging trips."

Thousands of miles north, in a cave complex in south-central Oregon, a team led by University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis Jenkins has found evidence of human presence in the area – in the form of fossilized feces. The material dates to between 14,000 and 14,270 years ago – some 3,000 years older than the oldest known human remains tied to the Clovis culture.

The results, which Science published online in early April, include DNA analyses that link six of 14 samples to two "founding" groups of native Americans.

Concerns remain over the possibility that the feces could have become contaminated over the millenniums. Dr. Jenkins says his team went through great lengths to rule out contamination. The team plans additional work at the site and is processing another 24 samples.

Still, the Oregon caves provide an intriguing geographical bookend to Monte Verde, says Jenkins. Both sites imply that people had lived there for some time.

Researchers who still argue that the Clovis people were the first to appear in the Western Hemisphere say that much of the evidence for pre-Clovis cultures is ambiguous. "Too many researchers with different points of view or different standards for interpreting the data disagree about the most basic lines of evidence," says Gary Haynes, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada at Reno.

Clovis – with its distinctive spear points and sites throughout North America – still represents the first widely recognizable culture in the Western Hemisphere, researchers say. And scientists focusing on pre-Clovis sites acknowledge that for them, typical "smoking gun" evidence is harder to come by. Much of the coastal land traversed by pre-Clovis people is now under water, thanks to sea-level rise from melting continental glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. And the people were on the move.

Pre-Clovis "is kind of a stealth culture," Dillehay says. It lacks a "corporate logo," he adds, such as the Clovis spear points.