Friday, May 09, 2008

Monte Verde update Ancient Beachcombers May Have Travelled Slowly
Researchers envision that coastal migration would have been a rapid process, but seaweed samples and gomphothere meat (meat from an extinct elephant-like animal that was widespread in the Americas 12-1.6 million years ago) found at Monte Verde may be signs of slower migration.

Although the site is located 50 miles from the Pacific coast and 10 miles from an inland marine bay to the south, Dillehay and the research team identified nine species of seaweed and marine algae found in hearths and other areas in the settlement. The samples were directly dated between 14,220 to 13,980 years ago, 1,000 years earlier than other reliably dated human settlements in the Americas and indicate that early immigrants could have moved south along the shoreline exploiting familiar coastal resources to get much of their food.

The researchers also found a number of inland resources, including gomphothere meat. The finding suggests immigrants moved back and forth between the coast and inland areas.

This article is a bit confusing (I thought), but Nature sums it up better:
The settlers would have had to travel around 90 kilometres to reach the coast, or 15 kilometres to reach an inland bay to the south. Such journeys hint that the people may have already been familiar with marine resources, allowing them to return to beaches and estuaries at opportune times to harvest the material. And if they were familiar with the coast, perhaps this is because they had lived there while migrating to their new home.

“The easiest explanation is that the people at Monte Verde made their way to South America from Asia by the coastal route,” says archaeologist Tom Dillehay of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, the lead author of the report in this week’s Science

They quote Fiedel as a critic wondering why people would only go to the coast to get seaweed and not other resources (birds, fish, mammals); that doesn't strike me as particularly problematic, if you can assume -- as they argue in the paper (well, the article, I haven't read the paper yet) -- that it was used for medicinal purposes. After all, people don't eat everything they come across, they have particular subsistence strategies. Seems reasonable that they might go to the coast or the mountains or wherever to get one thing, but not everything possible.

Still, a must-read. I ought to get the new issue this weekend and will report on it then.

UPDATE: Here's the ref and abstract. It's up on their web site already, but I shan't read it today.

Monte Verde: Seaweed, Food, Medicine, and the Peopling of South America
Tom D. Dillehay, C. Ramírez, M. Pino, M. B. Collins, J. Rossen, J. D. Pino-Navarro
Science 9 May 2008:
Vol. 320. no. 5877, pp. 784 - 786
DOI: 10.1126/science.1156533

The identification of human artifacts at the early archaeological site of Monte Verde in southern Chile has raised questions of when and how people reached the tip of South America without leaving much other evidence in the New World. Remains of nine species of marine algae were recovered from hearths and other features at Monte Verde II, an upper occupational layer, and were directly dated between 14,220 and 13,980 calendar years before the present (~12,310 and 12,290 carbon-14 years ago). These findings support the archaeological interpretation of the site and indicate that the site's inhabitants used seaweed from distant beaches and estuarine environments for food and medicine. These data are consistent with the ideas that an early settlement of South America was along the Pacific coast and that seaweeds were important to the diet and health of early humans in the Americas.