Archaeologists have been hunting for signs of the first inhabitants of the Americas at an area known as the Gault Site outside Killeen, Texas, ever since anthropologists discovered signs of early human occupation there in 1929. However, due to poor management of the land, looting, and even a commercial pay-to-dig operation, over the years, many of the upper layers have become irreparably damaged.
Then, in 1999, the University of Texas at Austin leased the land and began academic excavations. Digging deeper, archaeologists found 2.6 million artifacts at the site, including many from the Clovis culture, once believed to be the first people to settle North America. But the latest discoveries to be unearthed at Gault are arguably the most exciting to date: unknown projectile points, which push back human occupation of the area at least 2,500 years before the Clovis civilization, reports Kevin Wheeler at the Texas Standard.
The Clovis civilization derives its name from Clovis points, long 4-inch fluted projectile spear tips that archaeologists digging near Clovis, New Mexico, first came across in the early 20th century. Since that time, the distinctive points have been located at some 1,500 sites around North America, with the oldest dating back 13,500 years. For decades, archaeologists believed this unique technology was created by the Clovis, the earliest inhabitants of the Americas. But recent studies have brought that chronology into question. Now, the discovery of these even older, previously unknown types of projectile points in Texas further muddies that timeline.
Researchers began a dedicated effort to search for any pre-Clovis artifacts at Gault in 2007, as more and more evidence mounted from other parts of the Americas that the Clovis people may not have been the first to settle the New World. By the time the project wrapped in 2013, researchers had located 150,000 tools, including hide scrapers, flint cores, and most importantly, 11 small projectile points in the layers below the Clovis artifacts that they are referring to as the Gault Assemblage. These were dated to between 16,000 to 20,000 years old using a technique called optically stimulated luminescence.
“These projectile points are particularly interesting because they don’t look like Clovis,” Thomas Williams of Texas State University and lead author of the study in Science Advances tells Wheeler. “And at the moment they appear to be unique in the archaeological record in the earliest part of prehistory in North America…It really is changing the paradigm that we currently consider for the earliest human occupation in the Americas.”
Williams tells Wheeler in a radio interview that it’s not possible to say where the early humans at Gault came from since no similar projectile points have been found elsewhere. This being said, because it would have taken that culture a while to migrate into present-day Texas, their ancestors likely peopled the Americas centuries or even thousands of years before the artifacts of the Gault Assemblage were created. That lends more support to the emerging ideas that instead of crossing a gap in Canadian ice sheets about 13,000 years ago, the earliest Americans peopled the hemisphere by following a coastal route down Alaska and the Pacific coast.
This Gault Assemblage isn't the only evidence that the Western Hemisphere has hosted human inhabitants for much longer than previously believed. In 2012, archaeologists discovered pre-Clovis projectile points in Oregon in a site known as Paisley Caves and in 2016 divers found stone tools and butchered mastodon bones in a Florida sinkhole dating back over 14,000 years.
But the most convincing—and controversial—site to date is Monte Verde in Chile, near the tip of South America. That site indicates that human hunter-gatherers lived in the area more than 15,000 years ago, meaning humans made it all the way down North and South America thousands of years before the emergence of the Clovis culture. That suggests there are probably lots of new projectile points still out there to be discovered, if we just dig deep enough.