Cactus Hill is an archaeological site in southeastern Virginia, United States located on sand dunes above the Nottoway River about 45 miles south of Richmond. The site receives its name from the prickly pear cacti that can be found growing abundantly on-site in the sandy soil. Cactus Hill is one of the oldest archaeological sites in the Americas, and was inhabited as long as 18,000 to 20,000 years ago. The site has yielded multiple levels of prehistoric inhabitance with two discrete levels of early Paleoindian activity.
The Cactus Hill site furnished evidence of a pre-Clovis population in North America. Finds at Cactus Hill are considered highly significant as they address pivotal questions such as, “When did humans populate the Americas?” and “Where did they come from?”
The general consensus for over 70 years (prior to the Cactus Hill discoveries) was that the Clovis culture first inhabited the Americas. In 1933, this view was supported by the discovery of a flint spearhead found at Clovis, New Mexico. A mammoth skeleton that was laid next the spearhead was dated as being from 11,500 BP. At the time, this was one of the earliest indications of human activity in the Americas. The evidence suggested that the introduction of the Clovis point coincided with the extinction of the megafauna on the continent; furthermore, it was believed that these people came to the Americas from Siberia through the Bering land bridge—a stretch of land that resulted from low sea levels during the Wisconsin glaciation. It is hypothesized that this allowed for migration between 14,500 and 14,000 BP.
The entire theory concerning the first inhabitants being the Clovis culture was reevaluated following the discoveries at Cactus Hill in the mid-1990s. With the emergence of new evidence, the hypothesis for a pre-Clovis human occupation began to surface. With excavation revealing evidence dating as old as 18,000 to 20,000 years ago, it is suggested that humans had occupied the Americas long before migration was possible across the Bering land bridge.
Several inches of sand lie between the Clovis-era deposit and a lower level. This lower level, attributed to a pre-Clovis time period, includes:
- Two Clovis points. Microwear on the points indicates that hafting was used. Fractures on the tips insinuate that they were projectiles that broke on impact.
- Blades. Microwear indicates that they were hafted and used for butchering and hide processing.
- Elevated phosphate levels, an indication of human occupation
- An ample amount of Phytoliths which were further analyzed and determined to come from carbonized hickory wood
- 20 specimens of faunal remains, of those identifiable include: ten turtle shell fragments, two whitetail deer toe bone fragments, and five fossil shark’s teeth
The site itself has been called into question due to its settlement on a sand hill. The sandy foundation had been called into question by researchers, mainly due to the possibility of inconsistent stratigraphy,. James C. Baker of Virginia Tech conducted soil analysis that indicated that the formation of the site consisted of wind-blown sand deposits. Further research by James Feathers of the University of Washington confirmed that the buried sand levels had been undisturbed by later deposits. Along with this, paleoethnobotanist Lucinda McWeeney of Yale University identified charred plant remains. From this, she was able to identify a correlation between the stone artifacts and plant use at the site. The correlation indicates that the human occupation levels at the site have not been mixed. Dr. Carol Mandryk of Harvard University performed tests for the area that produced the 15,000-year-old date that showed relative stratigraphic integrity. Her tests at another area of the site failed to show proof that the sediments had not been disturbed.
Many hypotheses began to arise as a result of pre-Clovis evidence. One such hypothesis is advocated by Dennis Stanford. The Solutrean hypothesis involves the migration of European Solutreans to the Americas. The supporting evidence for this hypothesis includes the discovery of artifacts at Cactus Hill dated to the time period between the Clovis and Solutrean, and perhaps just as strongly, evidence of the same technology used between the two cultures. According to Dr. Bruce Bradley, “the Cactus Hill flint was a technological midpoint between the French Solutrean style and the Clovis points dating five millennia later.” The major criticism to this hypothesis is the area that there is simply not enough evidence to support it. In their journal article, Lawrence Guy Straus, David J. Meltzer, and Ted Goebel claim, “We believe that the many differences between Solutrean and Clovis are far more significant than the few similarities, the latter being readily explained by the well-known phenomenon of technological convergence or parallelism.” This helps explain the skepticism toward the Solutrean hypothesis, and much of the debate supporting the hypothesis is generally disregarded. This being the case, Cactus Hill was the driving force for the consideration of new hypotheses, and provides strong evidence supporting the inhabitance of the Americas prior to the Clovis. It has also led to the further research into the relatively unknown time period in America’s cultural history.
- Johnson, Michael F. (11 July 2012). "Cactus Hill Archaeological Site". Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Retrieved 2 January 2014.
- "Pre-Clovis Occupation on the Nottoway River in Virginia". Athena Review 2 (3). 2000. Retrieved 2 January 2014.
- "Stone Age Colombus". Horizon (BBC). 21 November 2002. Retrieved 2 January 2014.
- Rose, Michael (April 10, 2000). "Cactus Hill Update". Archaeology.
- "A Journey to a New Land." Cactus Hill. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.
- Straus, Lawrence Guy, David J. Meltzer, and Ted Goebel. "Ice Age Atlantis? Exploring the Solutrean-Clovis ‘connection’." World Archaeology 37.4 (2005): 507-32. Print.