By Matt Bayman
In 2018, a 58-year-old American named Holly “Cargo” Harrison walked from the southern tip of Argentina to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska (known as the top of North America), a distance of about 15,000 miles. The journey took him just 530 days to complete. Along the way, he had a heart attack, had to fend off a bear in Alaska and tore a tendon in his foot during the final leg of the journey. But he made it in one piece.
From 1977 to 1983 (2,425 days), British explorer George Meegan did an even longer version of this trip. While Harrison took a straight-forward south-to-north route, and passed through the western half of the United States and Canada, Meegan’s 19,019-mile journey went through the eastern United States and then cut through the middle of Canada above the Great Lakes to reach Prudhoe Bay. During the trip, he made a stop in Jimmy Carter’s backyard in Georgia (along with many other publicity stops) and apparently used 12 ½ pairs of Italian hiking boots along the way!
Harrison said he walked the route because no one else had. Meegan, who was a world-renowned adventurer already, seemed to be interested in experiencing how the first people arrived in North America from Asia and then fanned out to explore and conquer the New World.
Both of these men’s journeys piqued the interest of archaeologists and the scientific community. This is because one of, if not the biggest question in North American archaeology (and anthropology) is when, where and how did people from Asia first arrive in and then populate the Americas?
Until the early part of the 21st century, the prevailing theory was that, no longer than 13,500 years ago, people from Siberia crossed the Bering Straight land bridge and then followed the animals they hunted through an ice-free corridor that had formed between two giant glaciers that covered almost all of Canada. Before this, the ice sheets, which were sometimes more than a mile thick, blocked the way.
These first people, archaeologists believed, arrived on foot in the United States through the corridor in what would today be Montana or Idaho. Then, in just a few hundred years, it was believed; they spread out and colonized all of North and South America. This is something that seems even more plausible now, especially in light of Harrison’s speedy journey in 2018. If he could cover the distance in less than two years, what could generations of people do?
Top: Map of eastern Russian and Alaska with a light brown border depicting Beringia. Image from the National Park Service.
Above: A late Pleistocene landscape. This is what most people picture the “first Americans” hunting when they arrived in the Western Hemisphere. However, evidence at Meadowcroft Rockshelter, and other locations, shows early people were hunting the same animals that we do today, including deer. By Mauricio Anton © 2008 Public Library of Science.
Below left: A Clovis point. This style of arrow was thought to be the oldest technology of its kind in the Americas. Points at Meadowcroft, and throughout the eastern United States, however, show an older technology that predates the Clovis culture by thousands of years.
Below right: Northern hemisphere glaciation during the last ice age. By Hannes Grobe, Wikipedia Commons.
The name given to these first people was Clovis because the specially crafted spear points (pictured above left) they became known for were first discovered near Clovis, New Mexico. They were later found throughout all of the lower 48 states and as far away as Mexico and South America, as well as in Alaska and the southern parts of Canada. None, however, were found in Asia.
These discoveries led to the Clovis First theory, which states that no humans existed in the Americas prior to Clovis and that it was their weapons (known as fluted Clovis points) and tool-making technology that was the mother technology for all other stone artifacts that later occurred in the Americas.
This is why the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in western Pennsylvania is so controversial and intriguing.
Solid evidence indicates that people have been continually using this natural rock shelter for at least 16,000 years and possibly for up to 21,000 years, long before Clovis arrived in the Americas. Even more interesting is that, even at the earliest habitation level in the shelter, it appears that these people not only knew the land and resources well, but had already developed a large trade network. For example, shells from the Atlantic Ocean have been found in the depths of the archeological site. They were either brought there by a visitor who had been to the ocean, or acquired through trade. It takes time for these two things to develop.
If these facts hold up (and there’s no indication that they won’t), it means those of us living in the Miami Valley are located less than four hours from the longest continually inhabited place in the Americas (so far), and one of the most controversial archaeological sites in the world. And, it’s open to the public.
It also means that history needs to be reexamined and possibly rewritten!
A Short Drive to a Great Mystery
On a low-traffic day, it only takes about 3 ½ hours to reach Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village (see on map HERE) from the Miami Valley. Much of the drive is on Interstate 70. Then, in Wheeling, you follow West Virginia Route 2 north along the Ohio River before cutting east to reach the historic site, which is located just across the border in Pennsylvania. With the exception of passing through Columbus, it is a pleasant drive with good scenery.
Open May through October, the Meadowcroft Rockshelter is operated by the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, in association with the Smithsonian Institution, and located in a remote, forested part of the state.
At the visitor center, where a $15 ticket can be purchased, guests can get acquainted with the story of Meadowcroft and then visit several historic villages and outdoor exhibits located nearby.
The villages offer living history activities and demonstrations throughout the season. There’s a blacksmith shop, an Indian village, a trading post, a covered bridge, the Miller Museum and a series of walking trails that connects all of this and more.
The rock shelter, which had a roof built over it in 2007, is located nearby in a hilly, wooded area that sits above Cross Creek, a tributary of the Ohio River. The shelter, and the valley it lies in, was carved out of the Pennsylvania sandstone that covers much of this region between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago.
As my guide, Lloyd Black (pictured below), pointed out during my visit in 2021, the rock shelter is located in an ideal place. It never floods in the shelter, it’s high and dry, it’s large and well-ventilated, and the creek is an excellent source of fresh water. It also faces south, which means it keeps warmer than shelters that face other directions. People didn’t live here year-round, but instead stayed for several days or weeks at a time while hunting and foraging in the area. How far and wide these people lived and where they went when not at the rock shelter is not known.
At one time—around 20,000 years ago—the shelter was much larger. However, the reason it is now smaller is also the reason it is so valuable to archaeologists and for establishing a timeline for the earliest people in the Americas.
Black explains that because the rock on the top of the shelter is made from sandstone, little flakes continually fall down to the floor of the shelter. In fact, you can hear this happening during any visit. It’s always happening. One after another, over thousands of years, people came to this cave, cooked and hunted, and then left. What they left behind was then covered by these pieces of sandstone, generation after generation, and buried like time capsules.
At some time around 13,000-14,000 years ago, a roof collapse in the shelter trapped a “wealth of material,” all of which predates the Clovis culture by thousands of years. This includes 700 pieces of worked stone and at least 50 complete tools.
The collapse, however, did not stop the shelter from being used. Over thousands of more years, Native Americans from the Paleoindian (pre-10,000 B.P.), Archaic (10,000 to 3000 B.P.), Woodland (3000 to 450 B.P.) and Historic Periods (450 B.P. to present), all used the shelter as a seasonal hunting lodge, most often in the fall. It would later be nicknamed the “late-Pleistocene Holiday Inn.”
A Very Popular Place to Hang Out
According to Black, Native Americans left the area of the Meadowcroft Rockshelter during the American Revolution. And, until 1955, no one paid much attention to the old site, with the exception of teenagers who would come to the rock outcrop to have campfires and drink beer.
In was in 1955 that Albert Miller, who now owned the land where the shelter is located, discovered some Native American artifacts in a groundhog burrow near the shelter. Instead of reporting his find to the local news, and risking having the site vandalized, Miller kept it to himself and began looking for someone to do a proper excavation.
It would be another 18 years before Miller found the right person for the job. This turned out to be Youngstown, Ohio native and esteemed archaeologist James Adovasio, who led the first excavations from 1973 through 1979 and continues to monitor the site to this day.
Miller’s secrecy about the site paid off.
Through Miller and Adovasio’s efforts, the site was untouched and able to be excavated using the most careful, well-documented methods to date, including being the first archaeological site to use computers. In fact, it is considered one of the most carefully excavated sites in North America, providing a “unique glimpse” into the lives of Paleoindians. Smithsonian Magazine recently named Meadowcroft one of the “Five Great Places to See Evidence of First Americans.”
Adovasio and a team of young archaeologists (the site would become an important archaeological training school) started their dig in a fire pit that, judging by the empty beer cans discarded nearby, had been used not long ago in the 1970s.
“They start digging,” Black explains during my tour. “One of the first things they find is…more beer cans. Only these are from the 1960s.” He continues, “So they keep digging and digging and finding progressively older beer cans. They eventually reach a level with Colonial-era gin bottles.” Black pauses. “This has been a good place to hang out for a long time!”
In fact, as the dig continues further below the ground, Adovasio and his team find that people have been “hanging out” here “from the time of George Washington to at least 16,000 years ago, and every time in between,” Black says.
These discoveries rocked and continue to rock the world of archaeology, and specifically the Clovis First theory.
The pre-Clovis items in the shelter are found nearly 12 feet below the ground. They include tools, pottery, bifaces, blades and projectile points and chipping debris.
An unusual type of arrowhead is also found at the site, which has been named the Miller Lanceolate projectile point (after Albert Miller). It predates the Clovis point and shows great sophistication, but it’s missing the famous “fluted” feature that the Paleoindians, and specifically the Clovis and Folsom (another early Paleoindian group), were known to have crafted and used.
The implication of this is that, according to the National Park Service in its “Narrative Statement of Significance” (for Meadowcroft), “Clovis, Folsom and other fluted point complexes may have derived from such unfluted lanceolate points from Meadowcroft.”
Interestingly, the National Park Service notes that similar Miller points have been found at other locations near Meadowcroft, as well as at sites in Cactus Hill and Saltville in Virginia and at the Page-Ladson site in Florida, among others.
The name given to these early people is the “Miller Complex,” also named after Albert Miller.
The history changing discoveries at Meadowcroft don’t stop here.
Meadowcroft has yielded the largest collection of flora and fauna materials ever recovered from a location in the eastern United States.
According to the Heinz History Center, the arid environment provided the necessary and rare conditions that permitted excellent botanical preservation. In total, animal remains representing 149 species were excavated, as were a variety of plants. And this is where history blurs.
When archaeologists talk about the Clovis and the first peoples of the Americas—the Paleoindians—they almost always describe them as Ice Age hunters who wore animal skins and hunted giant creatures such as woolly mammoths using large fluted spear points. Such people did not stay in one place very long and simply followed herds of animals from place to place. They knew their animals, but not the resources of the land, at least not at first.
The earliest people at Meadowcroft, however, lived in an environment that was very similar to today and hunted animals that we are familiar with, such as deer and small mammals. They were also eating fruits, nuts and seeds and growing corn and squash. The National Park Service notes that this indicates that Meadowcroft shows evidence of the earliest domesticated crops in the northeastern United States. When and how did maize, which was developed in Mexico, arrive in Pennsylvania?
Black explains that, just to the north of Meadowcroft was a mile-high glacier fronted by arctic tundra and wetlands. However, for reasons that have not yet been fully explained, Meadowcroft and parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia were just like they are today during the Ice Age, including containing the same trees and animals we see here in western Ohio and with the same temperatures as today. This is similar to how Alaska and the Bering Straight land bridge were also warmer and ice-free during the last Ice Age, while also being located next to giant glaciers.
So, in the Miller complex, which may have stretched from Florida to Pennsylvania, we find an early group of people living in the eastern United States who had developed a unique style of tool- and weapon-making, who had developed agriculture, who knew the land and its plants and animals very well, who had developed trade routes, who lived in an environment similar to our own, and who very well may be a “mother culture” of the Americas and the Clovis.
If this is true, how did the Miller people arrive in Pennsylvania or Florida before the Clovis? Who were they? When did they arrive? Which direction did they come from? Had they taken Meegan’s route from Alaska, following the southeastern rim of the massive, melting glacier to reach the eastern United States, and then moved south to Florida, with stops in Meadowcroft, Virginia and, as we’ll see in a moment, possibly South Carolina? In this sense, they would never have seen the western United States.
Or, did they take Harrison’s route and head straight south from Alaska along the coast (somehow on foot prior to the last glacial advance, or, more realistically, by boat during the advance), and then cut across the vastness of the United States to reach Meadowcroft? Did they possibly follow the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to the Ohio River and then make their way up Cross Creek, where they discovered the well-suited rock shelter and a flourishing ecosystem?
Left: The orage line shows the 19,019-mile route that George Meegan took when walking through the entire Americas in the 1970s. Is it possible that early people followed a similar route, possibly along the rim of the glaciers and Great Lakes, to arrive in the eastern United States at a very early date? Image from Wikipedia Commons and enhanced by My Miami County LLC.
Above: The glacial lakes by Mike McGregor, Wikipedia Commons.
A New Theory on the Peopling of the Americas
It is now widely accepted that, before the Clovis ever stepped foot in the Americas through the ice-free corridor, other groups of people got here first, most likely by boat and most likely at many different times in pre-history. Sometimes, archaeologists are now discovering, people in the Americas even returned to Asia!
Although still heavily debated, archaeologists now believe that smaller groups of people from Asia used boats to skirt along the ice sheets and the coast of Canada to reach modern-day Washington, Oregon, California and far beyond, at least 15,000 years ago, and probably long before that. (Some of the oldest archaeological sites on the west coast of the United States, for example, are on the Channel Islands off of Los Angeles, California, rather than inland, meaning, these early people were more comfortable with the ocean than they were with the land. The Channel Island sites date to around 13,000 years ago, including a human skeleton, which is extremely rare to find from this time period.)
A controversial, but scientifically solid site in Chile called Monte Verde shows that people were living and trading in the very southern parts of South America as early as 18,500 years ago! That’s 5,000 years before the Clovis! This means South America might have been “colonized” earlier than North America.
Did these same people exploring the coast of South America cut across the Amazon River to reach the Atlantic Ocean (the Amazon flows from west to east) and, eventually, Cuba and Florida? Or did they cut across the land in Panama and follow the Gulf of Mexico around the shores of Texas, eventually discovering the mouth of the Mississippi River and Florida?
Archaeologists in Florida continue to find some of the oldest archaeological sites in the eastern United States and the Americas. Did these early Floridians move north, eventually populating the eastern United States and, over generations, forming the Miller Complex that later became the Clovis?
While much of this is conjecture, what we do know is that at least some of the groups that followed the coastline from Alaska to California decided to move inland.
Paisley Caves in Oregon, for example, may be one such place. Here, a group of seafarers decided to get away from the coast about 14,400 years ago. They followed a river inland and used the caves as a temporary shelter while exploring and hunting the land. They left behind technology that has been found at other sites along the coast of Alaska and Canada. However, no Clovis points have been found in the caves or these other sites, meaning the two groups are different, with different technologies.
Cactus Hill in Virginia, which shows evidence of the Miller Complex, appears to have been inhabited 16,000 to 20,000 years ago—the same time as Meadowcroft. As does the Delmarva Peninsula in modern day Maryland and Delaware, where Miller Complex objects also have been found.
The Woman of Naharon
By Cicero Moraes, 2018, Wikipedia Commons.
Also known as “Eve of Naharon,” this is a depiction of a 20-25-year-old human female found in an underwater cave in Mexico, about 80 miles west of Cancun. The skeleton has been carbon dated to 13,600 years ago, which makes it one of the oldest documented human finds in the Americas. The significance of the site and skeleton, according to Arturo Gonzalez, the lead archaeologist, is that the bone structure of “Eve” (and other skeletons found in the cave) is more consistent with that of people from Southern Asia, not Siberia.
The skeleton of a young woman found in a cave in Mexico (named “Eve of Naharon”) has been dated to at least 13,600 years old. Interestingly, according to Arturo Gonzalez, the lead archaeologist of the Eve of Naharon site, the bone structure of the skeleton is more consistent with that of people from Southern Asia, rather than people from Northern Asia. According to Gonzalez, this implies that people may have not come to America from North Asia over the land bridge, but instead by seafarers from a different part of Asia; people who were masters of the ocean, rather than large game hunters. The two groups would later mingle.
An archaeological site in South Carolina called the Topper site, near the Savannah River, definitely predates the Clovis and may be linked to the Meadowcroft site. Solid evidence indicates a human presence here from 16,000 to 20,000 years ago, but lead archaeologist Albert Goodyear claims to have evidence of people living in South Carolina 50,000 years ago! This is shocking because, 50,000 years ago is when it was thought modern humans first entered Europe.
The list goes on. There’s Buttermilk Creek in Texas, believed to be 15,000 years old. The Gault site, also in Texas, appears to be 16,000 years old. Chiquihuite Cave in Mexico has artifacts dating back 26,000 years. Huaca Prieta in Peru is a 14,500-year-old site. Page-Ladson in the Florida Panhandle has evidence of a human presence from at least 14,550 years ago. Pendejo Cave in southern New Mexico is showing evidence of human occupation at 37,000 years ago, and possibly tens of thousands of years before that! “Deep slash marks” in a giant sloth’s skeleton in Uruguay (mind you, that’s on the east coast of South America!), indicate they were made by humans around 30,000 years ago. People appear to have been in Taima-Taima in Venezuela about 14,000 years ago and possibly 22,000 years ago. A site near Mexico City shows people butchering and cooking deer and black bear 24,000 years ago. People are near the east coast of South America in Toca da Tira Peia, Brazil at least 22,000 years ago.
According to the National Park Service, if Meadowcroft is 16,000 years old or older, it brings the archeological data more in line with estimates needed for the development of language and Native American biology in the New World. It also provides a greater time depth for various cultural adaptations in the Americas, such as maritime adaptations along the Peruvian coast, to develop in the New World.
“Further,” the National Park Service states, “it enables archeologists to examine a Pleistocene adaptation in an environment with a very low population density. It also allows us to examine the technology fresh out of Siberia and what is potentially the predecessor to Clovis: a question which has always been an enigma. Australia is the only other continent where we can examine rates of migration and the specifics of how people migrate into totally new environments. Using the Clovis First model it appeared that new land was occupied very quickly and it was characterized by the development of a distinctive style of artifacts (i.e. fluted points). Based on Meadowcroft, and now Cactus Hill and Monte Verde, it appears that this process may be slow as it was in Australia.”
More than one-third of the Meadowcroft Rockshelter archaeological site has been left unexcavated for future generations—and future technology—to explore. As recently as 2019, new DNA technology was used at the site which confirmed at least 16,000 years of human occupation.
With the new evidence discovered at Meadowcroft and sites throughout North and South America pointing to an earlier discovery of the Americas, archaeologists are now changing where and how they look for evidence.
Adovasio, for example, has turned his attention to an area of the Gulf of Mexico in Florida that, during the last Ice Age and the time of the Miller Complex, was located above water. It is here, along with the now-submerged coastlines of North and South America that most archaeologists believe the oldest and most revealing sites will be found, and possibly even the remains of a boat(s). After all, long before farming villages existed, fishing villages were the main hubs of humankind. These are the hardest archaeological sites to access and excavate, but what can be learned could help answer all of these nagging questions.
Left: The coastline of the United States during the Ice Age 20,000 years ago. Image from the Department of Interior, public domain. How many more archaeological sites that predate the Clovis might exist in the ancient shorelines of the eastern United States?
Above: The dates keep changing and getting older, but this map shows archaeological sites that pre date the Clovis by many thousands of years. Map created by Pratyeka, Wikipedia Commons.
Another option is to “dig deeper” at existing archeological sites to see how far the record goes and what turns up. Simply put, since most archaeologists subscribed to the Clovis First theory, once they reached “Clovis levels” in the ground, they simply stopped digging, believing nothing else came before this, so it was a waste of time. However, people like Goodyear at the Topper site and Adovasio at Meadowcroft, among many other professional archaeologists, decided to dig deeper, risking looking foolish to their peers, but ultimately being proved correct. What other discoveries wait just a little bit deeper in the ground?
As a new generation of archeologists goes where no one has gone before, only now armed with new evidence and tools, it is only a matter of time before we have a new and clearer picture of how people arrived in and conquered the New World. The Meadowcroft Rockshelter, just a few hours away, is at the heart of this new horizon and a fascinating place to visit.
Learn more about Meadowcroft HERE.