The rockshelter is a natural formation beneath an overhanging cliff of Morgantown-Connellsville sandstone, which is a thick Pennsylvanian-age sandstone brown in color. Meadowcroft is in the Allegheny Plateau, northwest of the Appalachian Basin.
Meadowcroft Rockshelter and other Native American points of interest, Southwestern Pennsylvania
Native Americans left the site during the American Revolutionary War. It was not re-discovered until many years later, when, in 1955, Albert Miller found the first artifacts in a groundhog burrow. Miller delayed reporting his findings until he contacted James M. Adovasio, who led the first excavations of the site in 1973 until 1979 by the Cultural Resource Management Program of the University of Pittsburgh. Further University of Pittsburgh field school excavations were conducted through 1989. Since the 1990s, more recent work has also been undertaken by Adovasio through the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute. The methods of excavation used at Meadowcroft are still seen as state-of-the-art. It is viewed as one of the most carefully excavated sites in North America.
Radiocarbon dating of the site indicated occupancy beginning 16,000 years ago and possibly as early as 19,000 years ago. The dates are still controversial, with a recent survey carried out by the Society for American Archaeology reported support from 38% of archaeologists, with 20% rejecting the early dates. Criticism of these early radiocarbon dates has focused on the potential for contamination by ancient carbon from coal-bearing strata in the watershed. If authentic, these dates would indicate that Meadowcroft was used in the pre-Clovis era and, as such, provides evidence for very early human habitation of the Americas, and may make Meadowcroft Rockshelter the oldest known site of human habitation in North America, providing a unique glimpse into the lives of prehistoric hunters and gatherers. Woodland, Archaic, and Paleoindian remains have been found at the site.
Meadowcroft Rockshelter has yielded the largest collection of flora and fauna materials ever recovered from a location in eastern North America. The arid environment provided the necessary and rare conditions that permitted excellent botanical preservation. In total, animal remains representing 149 species were excavated. Evidence shows that people gathered smaller game animals as well as plants, such as corn, squash, fruits, nuts and seeds.
Additionally, the site has produced Pre-Clovis remains, found as deep as 11.5 feet underground. The site also has yielded many tools, including pottery, bifaces, bifacial fragments, lamellar blades, a lanceolate projectile point, and chipping debris. Recoveries of note also include fluted points, which are a marker of the Paleoindian period. Remains of flint from Ohio, jasper from eastern Pennsylvania and marine shells from the Atlantic coast suggest that the people inhabiting the area were mobile and involved in long distance trade. At least one basin-shaped hearth was reused over time.
Renovations to the rock shelter in 2008 were made so that visitors can see some of the tools and campfires made by the first Americans thousands of years ago. The Rockshelter is recognized as a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Treasure and is an official project of Save America's Treasures. A recreation of a 17th-century Native American village is under development.
Adovasio, J. M., with Jack Page. The First Americans: In Pursuit of Archaeology's Greatest Mystery. New York: Random House, 2002. Chapter 7 focuses on the Meadowcroft Rockshelter; the rest of the book sets the dig and the controversy surrounding it in a broader scholarly context.
Adovasio, J.M., J. Donahue, and R. Stuckenrath. "The Meadowcroft Rockshelter radiocarbon chronology 1975-1990." American Antiquity, 55.n2 (April 1990): 348(7).
Chandler, Graham. “The dawn of civilization.” Equinox, 96 (1998): 18. A brief article about the site and its artifacts.
Shea, Neil. “The First Americans?.” National Geographic, 207.5 (2005): 2.
"Who's Really on First?", Natural History, 109.9 (Nov 2000): 10. Presents differing opinions between James Adovasio and Anna Curtenius Roosevelt regarding the accuracy of dating artifacts from Meadowcroft.