Friday, May 9, 2008

Seaweed and sea routes for earliest Americans

In today's issue of Science, yours truly has a news article accompanying a new report about the archaeological site of Monte Verde in Chile, dated at least 14,000 years ago--making it one of the oldest, if not the oldest, known sightings of the first humans to occupy the Americas (see also my earlier post about recent discoveries at Paisley Caves in Oregon, where prehistoric poop clocked in at about the same age.) The new findings at Monte Verde have implications for how the first Americans might have traveled from Beringia (the land bridge between Asia and Alaska) and Alaska down to the North and South American continents. Since the Science publications require paying online access, however, I will let University of Wisconsin, Madison anthropologist John Hawks tell you about it on his anthro blog. John also gives the references to the papers and my story. The photo in upper left shows the excavations at Monte Verde about 10 years ago.

John says:

Well, archaeology is set to receive a once-in-a-generation influx of interest from teenagers drawn to the allure of the past. I mean, from the new Indiana Jones movie, of course.

So what do they have to go and do? Discover a real life crystal skull? Sorry, kids. If you want to be an archaeologist, it's all bodily functions from here on out.

Tom Dillehay and colleagues (2008) report in this week's Science that they have found chewed-on seaweed "cud" from Monte Verde, dated to 14,000 calendar years BP. And that paper is right next to the final publication of the Paisley Caves coprolites from Oregon, also dating to slightly before 14,000 calendar years BP.

Both papers are pretty cool -- together they emphasize that these kinds of forensic evidence are becoming increasingly important in documenting the activities (and existence) of archaeological populations. After all, a person has to poop thousands of times during his life, but he has only one skeleton.

Dillehay and colleagues interpret their seaweeds as a specialized medicinal collection, based on the presence of non-edible species and species present at different times of the year. Here's a quote from Michael Balter's news piece on the find:

Back 14,000 years ago, Monte Verde was located about 90 kilometers east of the sandy Pacific coast and 15 kilometers north of a rocky-shored inland marine bay. Algae from both environments were recovered, including inedible species that are today used as medicines in Chile and elsewhere. Moreover, the algal species found are known to flourish at different times of the year, suggesting to Dillehay's team that the Monte Verdeans were intimately familiar with coastal resources--possibly because they had originally arrived in the region via that route. Erlandson agrees: "The variety of seaweeds implies a pretty deep knowledge of coastal ecosystems and a long history of exploiting them."

Well, that's pretty impressive, even if the seaweed were chewed up. And hey, my kids are much more interested in bodily functions than they are in crystal skulls. So maybe this will bring in new archaeologists after all!


Balter M. 2008. Ancient algae suggest sea route for first Americans. Science 320:729. doi:10.1126/science.320.5877.729

Dillehay TD, Ramírez C, Pino M, Collins MB, Rossen J, Pino-Navarro JD. 2008. Monte Verde: Seaweed, food, medicine, and the peopling of South America. Science 320:784-786. doi:10.1126/science.1156533

Gilbert MTP and 12 others. DNA from pre-Clovis human coprolites in Oregon, North America. Science 320:786-789. doi:10.1126/science.1154116



Joseph Caputo said...

I saw the wire story this morning, and knew you had to have covered it for Science. What do you think of the coverage so far? Is it more or less than the coprolites news last month?

Michael Balter said...

I think both papers got quite a lot of news coverage, which is appropriate because they are largely complementary (and the hard copies were both published in Science today, the coprolites paper was originally published online.) Both papers nail early dates for the first Americans pretty solidly (even convincing one leading skeptic about the early dates at Monte Verde), and both provide circumstantial evidence in support of a sea route for the initial colonization of the Americas. Not a bad month for early American research!