Meadowcroft Rock Shelter: Our Ancient Ancestors at a Pleistocene Holiday Inn

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when there were no people in North America: from Alaska’s coast in the frozen north all the way to steamy Panama in the south, not one single human. And in the grand geologic scheme of things it wasn’t that long ago: 23,000 years more or less. But arrive we did, and if you want proof of these early-to-the-party humans, look no farther than the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in the tree-covered hills of western Pennsylvania.

On any given day there are dedicated archaeologists crawling around dusty holes digging through prehistoric trash, trying to answer the question of where our ancestors came from, and when they arrived. These sites all provide pieces of the puzzle, but Meadowcroft is special because it’s the oldest and longest-occupied site of human habitation in the Americas – quite a distinction. 

Clovis spearpoints on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Cleveland, Ohio. Named for Clovis, New Mexico, where such uniquely designed spearpoints were first found by archeologists, these spearpoints date from 13,500 to 13,000 years ago. They were found in (from left to right) Wisconsin, Wisconsin, Wisconsin/Illinois border, Illinois, Ohio, and Georgia.

Meadowcroft is also exceptional because it’s a paradigm buster. Before the discovery and excavation of this creekside rock shelter archaeologists generally believed 13,000 year-old relics at a Clovis, New Mexico dig were evidence of the first human presence in the Americas. This discovery goes back to the 1930s, so this “Clovis First” paradigm became firmly entrenched in the scientific community. But as more and more evidence is uncovered, the dates of the first arrivals keep getting older and older.* And Meadowcroft, at 6,000 years older and on the other side of the continent, seemed to put the nail in the coffin of this long-held Clovis First idea.

Meadowcroft was first discovered in 1955 by Pennsylvania farmer and Indian-relic hobbyist Albert Miller. While walking on his property he noticed bones peeking out of a groundhog burrow, and enthusiast that he was, couldn’t resist digging a bit. Recognizing the potential importance of the find he recovered the hole to prevent vandals, and waited an amazing 18 years before approaching University of Pittsburgh archaeologist James Adovasio who began the excavation in 1973. Adovasio and his team used a painstaking, multi-disciplinary approach that has made the site one of the most carefully excavated sites in North America.

When Adovasio published his surprising results, the earlier dates were met with considerable skepticism, and as usually happens, a scientific brouhaha ensued. But thanks to subsequent discoveries at Cactus Hill in Virginia as well as the Topper dig in South Carolina, the older dates of Meadowcroft have been corroborated. 

Like many archaeological digs, the site’s dusty hole, scaffolding, and string grid markers aren’t particularly impressive. But the arrow points, pottery, and other important human relics discovered here lead to a reevaluation of long-established beliefs of not only when, but how humans arrived on our continent. 

When I originally read about Meadowcroft I envisioned a caveman-style cavern where a cozy fire would protect the tired hunter-gatherer family from the elements, but there is no evidence that it was ever a long-term home. In fact, Adovasio said of the site: 

“People began camping there episodically as early as 16,000 years ago and continued visiting the shelter until the thirteenth century A.D. It has never flooded, it’s high and dry, the overhang, prehistorically, was fairly large, and it’s well ventilated. It really was a late-Pleistocene Holiday Inn. ”

–James Adovasio

So if the discovery at Meadowcroft sounds like a big deal it is, and I’m embarrassed to say that prior to reading about the early Native Americans in the Ohio Valley I’d never heard of it. But if there’s one silver lining to Pandemic travel restrictions it’s that I’ve been forced to turn my eyes closer to home for interesting places to visit, and for that, I’m forever grateful. 

Meadowcroft Rock Shelter is only a 40-mile drive southwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and when combined with visits to the excellent collection of Carnegie Museums in the city, it makes for a fascinating long weekend that has something for every taste. Leaf-peeping season is upon us so now would be the perfect time to check it out. Don’t miss it. 

Happy Trails and Good Health,

James & Terri

* Recently at White Sands National Park in New Mexico researchers discovered a group of 23,000 year-old fossilized footprints that clearly establish “evidence of a firm time and location” for some of the earliest humans in North America. The National Park Service has an excellent article about the footprints and life for humans at the time.

Photo Credits: 2. Tim Evanson 7. National Park Service

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

19 thoughts

  1. What an interesting story! Our understanding of how and when our ancestors migrated keeps evolving, and that’s a good thing. This post actually reminds me of the long-standing belief that the world’s oldest cave paintings were the ones found in Europe. But recent findings discovered that those painted in caves on the island of Sulawesi, tens of thousands kilometers away from Europe, are in fact older. I won’t be surprised if one day in the future people find even older cave paintings somewhere.

    1. Bama, I saw the story of the Sulawesi cave paintings and thought it was interesting, but like you, not too surprising. With all its islands and geographic spread, I’m sure that Indonesia still holds lots of scientific surprises on human history. I’m sure you’ve read about the extinct species of small humans (Homo floresiensis) found on Flores. I find that discovery absolutely fascinating, and wonder how things would be different if even one other species of human had survived. Fascinating stuff. ~James

      1. Yes, I have. I think I learned about it from Natgeo when I was still in college and it made me think of what you said.

  2. This is fascinating. Hard to imagine a time when North America was not populated with humans. Travelling around and learning more about local surroundings has indeed been a bonus to this time of pandemic. Hope you are both well. xo

    1. And Darlene, it’s even harder to imagine when you add South America to that equation. Europe and Asia were natural pathways when our ancestors came “out of Africa,” but the entire western hemisphere was inaccessible to humans for hundreds of thousands of years. Interesting stuff.

      As for pandemic travel, we certainly miss our international trips, but we’ve shifted gears and are having fun taking shorter, simpler, and safer trips. As you know, there are just too many unknowns and hassles to make international travel worth it now. Take care and be well. ~James

      1. And there is so much to see in the US, such a diverse and unique country. I finally bit the bullet and travelled back to Canada last month. It was complicated and stressful but I am glad I did it as I really needed to see my family. A friend took me to Banff, a place dear to my heart but one I hadn´t been to for a very long time.

      2. I went to Banff on my first trip to Canada, and after the drive up through the mountains and seeing Lake Louise, I fell in love with the place (in summer anyway 🙂 )

  3. Thanks. You have given us a place not only for our long list of “possible” places to visit but one that is in easy range of our new home. We too are taking shorter trips – on our way home from Nashville as I write.

    1. Ray, this is a beautiful area and really would make a great fall outing. Also, if you have any interest in dinosaurs, the Carnegie Natural History Museum in Pittsburgh has one of the best dino exhibits that I’ve seen anywhere. Also, Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater is only 75 miles SE of Pitt. So there’s a pre-packaged plan for you. 🙂 ~James

  4. Thanks for the super-interesting information, James! Those 23,000 year old fossilized footprints are incredible! Way back in college, we were taught that the earliest humans in North America were Clovis Man from around 12,000 BC. I had no idea that Meadowcroft Man (and Woman) existed so much earlier in Pennsylvania. Thanks for updating my mental outline of human history.

    1. Thanks Joe. From all I read it appears that, even though a few archaeologists hold on to the Clovis First idea, new discoveries are slowly chipping away at it. The east coast US discoveries as well as Monte Verde in Chile are a couple of examples. The New Mexico footprints are amazing for their preservation. And apparently the fact that the age dates came from grass seeds above and below the prints increases the accuracy. Interesting stuff. ~James

  5. Dear both;
    You never fail to interest me and my husband, Graham. In a way we (I) envy you your extensive travels. You have been to places I’ve only ever visited from an armchair. But good luck to you – you get the very most out of every trip you do!

    We had planned in 2019 to visit a friend in Croatia (ex BB host|) then make our way (by back roads, of course) into The Dolomites, where Graham still itches to photograph, and both of us explore. We also planned to check out Inland Spain. But we were ‘locked down’ for two years – and I did not even do any shopping. At 91 I have doubts that I’ll be able to cross the English Channel again – and I hate flying.

    However – we’ve just returned from two weeks in Wales. Ceredigion is quite magical, and new to us – but we also explored much more of The Brecon Beacons. We also visited more castles and other ancient sites. o CADW – Welsh Heritage – and well worth joining if you visit The British Isles – will save you a lot of money in the 2nd year onwards. Check it out… They do wonderful restoration/conservation work.

    Then we caught up with family – they all live in the South West, and seem to find it hard to make the trip North to see us – believing it is easier for us to drive down to see them!

    It took me two days of idleness to recover, but it was well worth it. And for once, we had themost wonderful weather here – all through!

    USA has had some mighty problems, though. I do hope sense prevails at the coming G8 Summit in Glasgow, Scotland…

    Peace and Love, folks –

    Jackie.

    1. Jackie, your driving trip to Croatia and the Dolomites sounds wonderful. I hope you can make it happen – maybe next year? It sounds like you and Graham have been doing lots of regional travel in the UK; like we are in the US.

      Terri and I lived for 3 years in London and we explored as much as possible all over the UK, and it was fabulous. Maybe it was because it was all new to us, but as you know, the history of the British Isles is deep, rich, and long. So in our experience, just about anywhere one cares to visit in the UK there’s something interesting to see. Before Covid, anytime we visited Europe we would try and make a stop in the UK for a few days. That’s a long-winded explanation for the fact that I envy you two and your ability to see so much literally in your own back yard. Here’s wishing all of us can get back to our normal travel lives soon. Take care and good health. ~James

  6. Debbie Darkin

    13:27 (4 minutes ago)

    to GALLIVANCE

    Dear Terri and James,

    We loved your post on topiary. There are many topiary gardens in GB, but the one you showed was so special in echoing the paintings of Pissaro.

    We thought you might enjoy our new post (just out, because I had to nag Graham away from his latest downloads for Photographic society).

    Am always torn between the beauty and the cruelty of Japanese torture of trees,,,
    Anyway:

    https://dreamitdriveiteurope.com/magical-japanese-garden/

    1. We’ve seen many of the topiaries in the UK, and they are incredible. I’m sure that some of them are ancient. I wouldn’t want to be the gardener responsible for keeping all the plants healthy and trimmed. ~James

  7. It’s hard to imagine no humans in North America! Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to go back and visit. I doubt we would be able to recognize very little of what we now see.

    It’s also amazing Miller waited 18 years to share his discovery. Neat stuff!

    1. Laura, like you, I’m amazed at the thought of no humans in North America (and the same applies to South America.) We all know that it must have been this way, but to actually think about the reality of it is astounding … an humbling.

      Meadowcroft is a low-key sort of place, and really fits more in the “I’ve been there” category, and it won’t gain much traction in a happy hour conversation. But for geeks like me with an interest in human history it was pretty cool. ~James

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