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On November 12th 1955, as Albert Miller took a walk through his Pennsylvania property, named Meadowcroft, he noticed a freshly dug groundhog hole. Upon seeing the disturbed earth, the amateur archaeologist saw a chance to confirm his theory that Native Americans once lived on his land. He expanded the hole until he found evidence to support his theory. Eighteen years passed before archaeologists took a closer look at the site, but when they did, they discovered the oldest evidence of human habitation in North America.
What they found were artifacts from pre-Paleo-Indians who had arrived in North America long before the Gauls conquered France, before the Great Pyramids of Giza were built and before farming began in the Fertile Crescent. Dennis Stanford, head of Paleo-Archaeology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, explained that these people were big game hunters. "[They hunted] extinct animals such as mammoth, giant bison, camel, horses and we find evidence of them from the Chesapeake Bay all the way to San Francisco and down into South America. And they lasted until about 9000 years ago when they were replaced by other peoples that came in and began to be gatherers more than hunters," Stanford said.
Pushing back North American habitation by 4,000 years
For many years, the oldest evidence of human existence in North America dated back 12,000 years. But when Albert Miller's property was excavated in the early 1970s, Smithsonian archaeologists made a remarkable discovery. Radiocarbon dating showed that several artifacts were 16,000 years old.
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David Scofield, director of Meadowcroft, said not only did the results put people on this continent 4,000 years earlier than previously believed, but it put them in a place inconsistent with earlier theories of human migration from Asia through Alaska and down the west coast.
He noted that, it wasn't well received at first because it contradicted what was previously understood to be the first people in North America. "So, many archaeologists insisted the artifacts must have been contaminated or the tests simply weren't conducted properly."
But the Smithsonian has held firm to its original results, which have been reconfirmed through the years using more advanced technology, said Stanford. "And so now it's pretty clear - to most of us at least - that the dates at Meadowcroft are correct and that they show one of the earliest finds of pre-Paleo people was at Meadowcroft. Oddly enough it wasn't in British Columbia, or Alaska or Montana, but Pennsylvania."
Stanford's theory is that people migrated to both sides of the North American continent, and that Meadowcroft's first inhabitants were early Europeans who crossed the Atlantic in boats as they followed game such as seals.
An ideal location for an unlikely discovery
Meadowcroft is located on the side of a hill, under a giant rock shelter, and over the last 35 years, two-thirds of the site has been excavated. David Scofield explained that besides its age, the site is unique because it was used repeatedly for centuries, and each generation left behind artifacts neatly preserved in chronological layers of dirt. The oldest are from 16,000 years ago, the most recent are just a few decades old.
"In the '70s, this was still a party spot and a place for kids to camp out," he said, pointing out that the reasons young people were attracted to Meadowcroft were the same reasons the pre-Paleo-Indians were attracted to it. It makes sense, said Scofield, because it's a sheltered site that's above the creek and it's just a good place to camp.
The extensive site has yielded more than 20,000 artifacts either made or modified by people. They include stone and bone tools, pottery and basketry fragments and spear and projectile points. Archaeologists have also found hundreds of thousands of animal and plant remains.
Scofield said the finds will help scientists learn more about the diets of various cultures who used the site, the evolution of native species and even climate change.
"Our mission is really to help people understand how people interacted with the environment here and how they used the natural resources to survive and build a better life for themselves," he explained. "That is true of the first people that used the site, the Paleo-Indians, it's true of the 18th-century native people who were here [and] it's true of the Europeans who came here. They were all using the resources that were here for their benefit, for their survival and to advance their lives," added Scofield.
A draw for international visitors
Visitors come to Meadowcroft from around the world, to stand where people stood 16,000 years ago. As the oldest site of human use in North America, Scofield said, this is certainly something that people are interested in. "It's a remarkable experience just to be there and know what took place at this site thousands of generations ago."
In 2005, Meadowcroft Rockshelter became a National Historic Landmark. Just two years later, the site underwent renovations to add steps leading up to the dig and a new permanent roof for added protection.
A museum of rural life depicting a European settlement of the 18th century and a Native American camp now supplement the site. "For visitors, these features bring alive those who once occupied the area," said John Bobeck, Meadowcroft's education manager. "A lot of people associate being prehistoric with being very crude, living a very austere, tough way of life. What we do here is try to combat that stereotype by pointing out that these people had a very complex, sophisticated way of life. I think we're able to convey this image by looking at some of the artifacts," Bobeck said.
Unearthing treasures containing the mysteries of thousands of years of history is what makes archaeology truly exciting, said David Scofield.
"You never know. It's one of the exciting things about archaeology. You can speculate and you can excavate in areas where you believe there might be something, but until you actually excavate nobody really knows."
Next summer, artifacts from the final third of Meadowcroft will be excavated.