Gone But Not Forgotten
- Aug 9, 2005
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SourceLocal site rewrites history of early humans in America
6/12/2009 12:30 AM
By DR. TOM MACK
Since 1998, archaeologists at a site in Allendale County have been making discoveries that have the potential to rewrite the history - or more precisely, the prehistory - of our state.
The Topper site, named for a local resident who first found ancient artifacts at this location that borders the eastern shore of the Savannah River, has been the subject of major media attention because of the unearthing of evidence that human habitation in North America predates traditional estimates.
One of the staple beliefs of paleoamerican research - the term "paleo" is derived from the Greek word for "ancient" - holds that the first Americans appeared no earlier than 13,000 years ago; these early humans, it is thought, originated in Northeast Asia and crossed over to our continent after the last Ice Age.
Labeled the Clovis culture by scientists because the first evidence of these ancestors of the indigenous people of North America was found in the 1930s near present-day Clovis, N.M., these prehistoric humans were noted for their creation of distinctly shaped stone spear points used in the hunting of bison and mastodon and other early mammals.
The Topper site offers rich evidence of Clovis occupation in the Central Savannah River Area; in fact, the team responsible for excavating the site, members of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, think that they have discovered at Topper an early quarry used by the Clovis people to gather the materials - in this case, a type of rock known as chert - for fashioning their stone tools.
Just its identification as a Clovis site would have been enough to make Topper an archaeological location of intense scientific interest, but a decision made by Dr. Albert Goodyear, the founder and director of the Allendale Paleoindian Expedition, to dig deeper than is generally the case at most such sites led to hypotheses that have made headlines.
In 2004, Goodyear and his team dug four meters below the surface and found artifacts in a layer of burnt plant remains that were subsequently tested via radiocarbon dating. The finding that this charcoal deposit is as old as 50,000 years may lend credence to the theory that human habitation on this continent dates much, much earlier than anyone supposed. Goodyear himself asserts that "Topper is the oldest radiocarbon-dated site in North America."
The verdict is still out, however, as to whether this evidence alone contradicts the long-held belief that early humans first arrived in America from Asia 13,000 years ago.
Many scientists argue that there is still not sufficient proof - incontrovertible material evidence - to support that contention.
Still, this pre-Clovis claim is tantalizing - and the search for further proof is under way, thanks to the ongoing work of the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at USC. Excavation continues unabated, with the active encouragement of the Clariant Corporation, which owns 2,000 acres in Allendale County, including the Topper site.
This Swiss-based company not only decided to provide camping facilities for the staff of the Southeastern Paleoamerican Survey but also made a significant financial contribution to the construction of a pavilion that shelters some of the most critical area of excavation - a viewing deck was added at this spot for the convenience of visitors in 2007.
Anyone can take part in this history-making effort to rewrite our state's prehistorical past.
Each summer, members of the public can join the "expedition" and participate in the dig by paying a largely tax-deductible fee; in return, they get to "work" the site and learn more about excavation techniques and artifact identification. For more information, visit www.allendale-expedition.net.
Dr. Mack is a Carolina Trustee Professor at USC Aiken.