The Poop on the First Americans

If you think creationists and evolutionary biologists can’t stand one another, spend some time—about three minutes will do—with scientists who study the first Americans.

The old guard has for years defended the dogma that the so-called Clovis people, whose artifacts have been dated at 13,000 years old, are the rightful owners of that honor. Their challengers (who call their opponents the “Clovis police”) keep presenting evidence for older settlements, such as those at Meadowcroft in Pennsylvania, Topper in South Carolina and Now comes what some anthropologists are calling the most convincing evidence to date of an earlier settlement of America: feces.

Fossilized feces, to be exact. Called coprolites, they were discovered in caves in south-central Oregon in 2002 and 2003. The oldest of the droppings have been carbon-dated to about 14,340 years old, the scientists report in a paper published online this afternoon in Science—more than 1,000 to 1,400 years older than the generally-accepted age of the Clovis culture. And a genetic analysis finds that they contain mitochondrial DNA unique to present-day North American Indians—persuasive evidence that the legendary walk on a land bridge across the Bering Strait took place some 1,000 years earlier than the old school insists.

Assuming the report is right (there is some muttering that the feces are canine, and that the human DNA means the dogs ate people—but people would still have to have been in or near that cave to become dinner), it raises a question even more intriguing than when the first Americans arrived—namely, how. It has long been assumed that people from Siberia walked across to America and then continued inland and south only when the glaciers retreated. But “our findings show that there were people south of the ice cap several hundred years before the ice-free corridor developed. The first humans either had to walk or sail along the American west coast to get around the ice cap,” says Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, an expert in ancient DNA—that is, “unless they arrived so long before the last ice age that the land passage wasn’t yet blocked by ice.”

If they were indeed sailors, that would explain how they managed to reach points south, including Monte Verde, so quickly. And it paints a portrait of the first Americans as much more sophisticated than mere pedestrians.