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.
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.