Five Great Places to See Evidence of First Americans

Encounter the fossils and other remnants of the lives left behind by the continent’s original settlers

Courtesy of Mastodon State Historic Site

Meadowcroft Rock Shelter

(Ed Massery)
Avella, Pennsylvania

A local property owner discovered this site in 1955 but kept a lid on it until 1973, when University of Pittsburgh archaeologists led by James Adovasio began to excavate. They found artifacts about 3,000 years older than those at Clovis, sparking a great academic controversy.

Meadowcroft, 35 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, is now a National Historic Landmark run by the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, a Smithsonian affiliate. Dug from a cliff face 45 feet above Cross Creek, the rock shelter was once largely inaccessible. Now there are tours, and a stairway climbs the hillside to a 2007 building that protects the original site and areas still to be excavated. A visitor center offers exhibits. Open May through October.

Blackwater Draw National Historic Landmark

Blackwater Draw National Historic Landmark
(Michael Doyle)
New Mexico

In 1929, in a dry lake bed near Clovis, New Mexico, a young outdoorsman named Ridgely Whiteman came across unusual, fluted projectile points—the first evidence of a 13,000-year-old Paleo-Indian culture. Archaeologists soon followed, piecing together an account of the Clovis people, long believed to be the first to settle in the Americas.

Today Eastern New Mexico University in Portales maintains the iconic Clovis complex at Blackwater Draw. A one-mile walking trail explores the lake bed and an old excavation. The university also has a small museum on its campus 12 miles away, with artifacts and bones of the giant mammal “megafauna”—bison, mammoth, ground sloths and camels—hunted by the Clovis settlers. The museum is open year-round. The field site is open April through October.

Lubbock Lake

Courtesy of Museum of Texas Tech University
(Courtesy of Museum of Texas Tech University)
Landmark Texas

This meander of a Brazos River tributary on the northern outskirts of Lubbock, Texas, yielded, in the 1950s, the first radiocarbon dated Paleo-Indian material, a burned 9,800-year-old bison bone.

The Lubbock Lake site and visitor center, on the southeastern edge of the Staked Plains, are operated by Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Hiking trails range from 1/2 mile to 3 1/2 miles. Exhibits chronicle Lubbock Lake’s evolution from a fast-moving streambed during the Clovis era, to ponds, then to marsh. The Museum of Texas Tech also exhibits artifacts from the archaeology site. Open year-round.

Mastodon State Historic Site

(Courtesy of Mastodon State Historic Site)
Imperial, Missouri

The first ancient animal bones were found near the town of Kimmswick, Missouri, early in the 19th century, and the riverbed site was picked over by amateurs for more than 150 years before Russell Graham of the Illinois State Museum began digging there in 1979. About ten feet below the surface Graham uncovered a Clovis projectile point and the remains of a mastodon, clear evidence that early Americans had hunted these elephant-like creatures.

At the museum, find Clovis artifacts and the bones of mastodon, bison, short-faced bear and other large ice age mammals. A movie highlights the debate over how human hunting and climate change may have contributed to the extinction of these megafauna. A walking trail through a portion of the 418-acre site takes visitors to the bone bed, but the bed has been covered with plastic and back-filled to make sure it remains undisturbed until excavations—still incomplete—resume. Open year-round.

Murray Springs Paleo-Indian Site

Murray Springs Paleo-Indian Site
(Tom Peck)
Sierra Vista, Arizona

This remote attraction in the eastern Arizona desert on the Mexico border is part of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Since the 1960s, archaeologists working here have uncovered thousands of stone artifacts and large mammal bones from the Pleistocene era 12,000 to 13,000 years ago—the largest Clovis cache in the Southwest. Researchers say it was a butchering site. Today the Murray Springs dig can be reached by a short but rugged walking trail. The site does not have exhibits or a museum. Consider stopping in Sierra Vista to check in with the Friends of the San Pedro River, a volunteer organization that leads hikes to Murray Springs. Bring your own water. Open year-round.

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