New studies show early evidence of humans in the Americas | University of Oxford

New studies show early evidence of humans in the Americas

22 July 2020

Humans reached the Americas more than 15,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to research published today in Nature. But, the international team found, it was much later that the presence of humans affected now-extinct large animals.

Papers from researchers with the University of Oxford and the University of Zacatecas, Mexico, and a host of researchers from other universities, including in the UK the Universities of Exeter and Cambridge, provide important new insights into our understanding of the First Americans - and when they moved into the continent for the first time.

It was popularly believed people arrived in the Americas around 13,000 years ago but, this new research shows people entered the continent much earlier - over 30,000 years ago. 

The Oxford team, including Professor Tom Higham and Dr Lorena Becerra-Valdivia used a powerful statistical approach to build a detailed chronological framework for the arrival and dispersal of humans into North America.

This showed that humans were likely present in the region before, during and after the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). But more widespread occupation is likely to have begun much later, during a period of abrupt global climate warming between 14,700 and 12,900 years ago, when there was an increase in human occupation across North America.

According to Professor Higham, ‘A combination of new excavations and cutting-edge archaeological science is allowing us to uncover a new story of the colonisation of the Americas. The First Americans came from eastern Eurasia, and it looks as though there was a surprisingly-early movement of people into the continent. 

‘The people that travelled into these new lands must have come by sea, because the northern parts of North America were impenetrable and sealed off from eastern Eurasia by a massive ice sheet until 13,000 years ago.

‘The discovery that people were here more than 30,000 years ago raises a range of key new questions about who these people were, how they lived, how widespread they were and, ultimately, what their fate was.’

When the timeline for humans was compared with dates obtained for extinct animals -including types of camels, horses and mammoths - the analysis showed human expansion, during this warmer period, happened at broadly the same time as their disappearance. The authors suggest that an increase in human population seems to be linked to a significant impact on the catastrophic decline of these large megafauna.

Dr Becerra-Valdivia says, ‘The results of this study allow us to understand the initial human occupation of the Americas in greater detail than ever before, and gives us the opportunity to harmonise new genetic, cultural and climatic evidence. 

‘The peopling of the Americas was a complex and dynamic process and we need to combine insights from different disciplines to understand it fully. What is clear is that humans were present in the continent well before previously accepted dates. But it was only around 14,700 years ago that those people became more highly visible in the archaeological record, likely due to an increase in population.'

An international team of researchers working at Chiquihuite cave, in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, has found remarkable evidence of early occupation. Team leader Dr Ciprian Ardelean, from the University of Zacatecas and the University of Exeter, says, ‘The finds at Chiquihuite cave are extremely exciting. The archaeology is older than anything we have seen before and the stone tools are of a type that is unique in the Americas.

‘It is curious that the site was occupied so much earlier than others. It seems likely to us that the people of Chiquihuite represent a ‘failed colonisation’, one which may well have left no genetically detectable heritage in today’s First Americans’ populations.’

Head of the Oxford dating laboratory, Dr. Jean-Luc Schwenninger, who worked with the team, notes, ‘Our involvement in the dating of this extraordinary site stretches back almost ten years and, finally, to see the results published is immensely satisfying...the publication of these new discoveries and findings, which rock and challenge long established views, required extra amounts of diligence, scrutiny, patience and perseverance.’

Notes to editors:

  1. The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) occurred between 26,000 and 18,000 years ago. It is widely known as the peak of the Ice Age, during which global temperatures fell to their lowest for tens of thousands of years.
  2. The Oxford results are based on hundreds of dates obtained from 42 archaeological sites in North America and Beringia (the ancient land bridge connecting the continent to Asia).
  3. The team used a statistical approach known as Bayesian age modelling performed on software (OxCal) developed in Oxford by Professor Christopher Bronk Ramsey. 
  4. The analysis estimates the start of human occupation at different sites, as well as the commencement of three distinct stone tool traditions in these regions. Dates were combined statistically along with stratigraphic information from the deposits to estimate the start and end of human occupation at each of the sites and then plotted spatially across the continent.
  5. South Wales, Australia.
  6. Professor Thomas Higham is Director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, School of Archaeology and Fellow of Keble College, Oxford.
  7. Dr Jean-Luc Schwenninger, is senior co-author and head of Oxford’s Luminescence Dating Laboratory at the School of Archaeology. 
  8. The Oxford work was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC; grant NF/2017/1/2), Merton College, Santander, and the Clarendon Fund. The latter also provided the funding for the paper titled, “The timing and impact of the earliest human arrivals in North America”.
  9. A selection of images, captions and credits can be obtained from Dr Becerra-Valdivia and Prof. Higham here https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/19YWA3avL-7z4wjCRba3l60O1HyZIUzQK

Media resources:
The two papers, entitled “The timing and impact of the earliest human arrivals in North America” and “Evidence of human occupation in Mexico around the Last Glacial Maximum” can be obtained from Nature’s press site or the authors named below.

Media contacts: 

• “The timing and impact of the earliest human arrivals in North America”
Dr Lorena Becerra-Valdivia, +61 02 9161 8550, l.becerravaldivia@unsw.edu.au
Professor Tom Higham, +44 1865 285231, thomas.higham@rlaha.ox.ac.uk

or news.office@admin.ox.ac.uk

• “Evidence of human occupation in Mexico around the Last Glacial Maximum”
Dr Ciprian Ardelean, +52 492 124 8503, aeci000206@uaz.edu.mx

or K.L.Maddern@exeter.ac.uk

For the article titled, “Evidence of human occupation in Mexico around the Last Glacial Maximum”, members of the research teams include:

Mexico: Ciprian F. Ardelean (Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas), Juan I. Macías-Quintero (Universidad de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas), Joaquin Arroyo-Cabrales (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia), Yam Zul E. Ocampo-Díaz (Universidad Autónoma de San Luís Potosí & Grupo de Geología Exógena y del Sedimentario), Igor I. Rubio-Cisneros (Grupo de Geología Exógena y del Sedimentario), Luis Barba-Pingarón (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), Agustín Ortiz-Butrón (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), Jorge Blancas-Vázquez (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), Irán Rivera-González (Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia), Corina Solís-Rosales (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), María Rodríguez-Ceja (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), Zamara Navarro-Gutierrez (Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas), Jesús J. De La Rosa-Díaz (Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas), Vladimir Huerta-Arellano (Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas), Marco B. Marroquín-Fernández (Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas), L. Martin Martínez-Riojas (Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas), and Alejandro López-Jiménez (Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas).

United Kingdom: Ciprian F. Ardelean (University of Exeter), Eske Willerslev (University of Cambridge), and Devlin A. Gandy (University of Cambridge).

Denmark: Mikkel Winther Pedersen (University of Copenhagen), Martin Sikora (University of Copenhagen), and Eske Willerslev (University of Copenhagen; Wellcome Trust, Sanger Institute; and the Danish Institute for Advanced Study at The University of Southern Denmark).

Brazil: Jennifer G. Watling (Universidade de São Paulo), Vanda B. de Medeiros (Universidade de São Paulo), and Paulo E. De Oliveira (Universidade de São Paulo).

United States of America: Charles G. Oviatt (Kansas State University) and Paulo E. De Oliveira (The Field Museum of Natural History).

The University of Oxford
Oxford University has been placed number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the fourth year running, and at the heart of this success is our ground-breaking research and innovation.Oxford is world-famous for research excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.