View of Monte Verde and Chinchihuapi Creek in 2012.
Monte Verde is an archaeological site in southern Chile, located near Puerto Montt, Southern Chile, which has been dated to as early as 18,500 BP. Until recently, the widely published date has been 14,800 years BP. This dating added to the evidence showing that the human settlement of the Americas pre-dates the Clovis culture by roughly 1000 years. This contradicts the previously accepted "Clovis first" model which holds that settlement of the Americas began after 13,500 BP. The Monte Verde findings were initially dismissed by most of the scientific community, but in recent years the evidence has become more accepted in some archaeological circles, There is as yet no consensus, and vocal "Clovis First" advocates remain.
In 2015, Monte Verde was dated to 18,500 BP with new evidence.
Coastal migration is a model explaining how inhabitants arrived at Monte Verde. Archaeological evidence suggests that people arrived at Monte Verde about 1,800 years before the time that the Bering Land Bridge between Alaska and Siberia would have become passable in 13,000 BP. Peoples traveling down the western coast of the Americas appears to be the most plausible explanation for the earliest inhabitants of Chile. Paleoecological evidence of the coastal landscape's ability to sustain human life further supports this model. However, as of 2009 no archaeological evidence has been found of pre-Clovis humans using a coastal migration route.
The site was discovered in late 1975 when a veterinary student visited the area of Monte Verde, where severe erosion was occurring due to logging. The student was shown a strange "cow bone" collected by nearby peasants who had found it exposed in the eroded Chinchihuapi Creek. The bone later proved to be from a mastodon. Tom Dillehay, an American anthropologist and professor at the Universidad Austral de Chile at the time, started excavating Monte Verde in 1977.
The site is situated on the banks of Chinchihuapi Creek, a tributary of the Maullín River located 36 miles (58 km) from the Pacific Ocean. One of the rare open-air prehistoric sites found so far in the Americas, Monte Verde was well preserved because it was located in an anaerobic bog environment near the creek. A short time after the site was originally occupied, the waters of the creek rose and a peat-filled bog formed that inhibited the bacterial decay of organic material and preserved many perishable artifacts and other items for millennia.
Radiocarbon dating of bones and charcoal in 1982 gave the site an average age of 14,800 years ago (calibrated), more than 1000 years earlier than the oldest-known site of human habitation in the Americas at that time.
In the initial excavation, two large hearths were found and many small ones as well. The remains of local animals were found, in addition to wooden posts from approximately twelve huts. Scraps of clothing made of hide were also found. This led archaeologists to estimate the population was around 20-30 inhabitants. A human footprint was also found in the clay, probably from a child. Inside the camp, archaeologists found a chunk of meat that still had preserved DNA. After a DNA analysis, it matched that of a mastodon, indicating the type of food the inhabitants ate.
Awareness about Monte Verde among the international archaeology community was greatly increased in 1989 when Dillehay delivered a presentation on Monte Verde at a conference on settlement of the Americas at the University of Maine. Archaeologist David J. Meltzer notes on that presentation:
The images Tom Dillehay was showing of the well-preserved remains at Monte Verde—wooden artifacts and house planks, fruits, berries, seeds, leaves, and stems, as well as marine algae, crayfish, chunks of animal hide, and what appeared to be several human coprolites found in three small pits—were unlike anything most of us, who long ago had learned to be used to stone tools and grateful for occasional bits of bone, had ever seen.
The early date for the site was not widely accepted until 1997. It had hitherto been generally agreed that ancient people had entered the Americas using the Bering Strait Land Bridge, which was about 13,000 kilometers (8,000 miles) north of the Monte Verde site. A group of 12 respected archaeologists revisited the site in 1997 and concluded that Monte Verde was an inhabited site and predated the Clovis culture. One of Dillehay’s colleagues, Dr. Mario Pino, claimed a lower layer of the site is 33,200 years old, based on the discovery of burned wood several hundred feet to the south of Monte Verde. Radiocarbon dating established the wood as 33,000 years old. Dillehay was cautious of this earlier date, and as of 2007 it has not been verified nor accepted by the scientific community.
Material evidence gathered at Monte Verde has reshaped the way archaeologists think about the earliest inhabitants of the Americas. Radiocarbon dating has provided a date of 14,800 BC and possibly 33,000 BC, establishing Monte Verde as the oldest-known site of human habitation in the Americas. Previously, the earliest accepted site had been determined to be near Clovis, New Mexico, dating between 13,500-13,000 BP, over 1,000 years later than Monte Verde.
The new dates supplied by Monte Verde have made the site a key factor in the debate over the first migration route from Asia to North America. Before the discovery of Monte Verde, the most popular and widely accepted theory was the overland route, which speculates that the first American inhabitants migrated from Asia across the Bering Strait and then spread throughout North America. However, the early dates associated with Monte Verde appear to weaken this theory. Prior to 13,000 BP, the Cordilleran Glacier (which covered much of present-day Canada) had not yet melted enough to reveal an ice-free corridor for people to reasonably journey by foot. The Monte Verde radiocarbon dates precede 13,000 BP, despite the fact that before the glacial melt, the vast, desolate, icy landscape of much of the Americas could not possibly have permitted enough vegetation to sustain traveling people or herded animals.
The most prevalent theory today is the coastal migration hypothesis, which argues that people migrated from Asia down along the western coasts of North and South America. Monte Verde is located 8,000 miles south of the Bering Strait. Such a considerable distance was probably unreasonable to trek by foot, especially on ice. Furthermore, remains of 22 varieties of seaweed are referenced in regards to this theory. Modern native inhabitants of the regions use these particular local seaweed varieties for medicinal purposes. Using an ethnographic analogy, this suggests that the Monte Verde residents used these varieties for similar purposes, which further suggests an extensive knowledge of marine resources. Together with a relative lack of stone tools, it appears that these first settlers were maritime-adapted hunter-gatherer-fishermen, and not necessarily big-game hunters like the Clovis. Therefore, it is feasible that they traveled along the coast by boat or along the shoreline, and could survive on marine resources throughout the voyage south.
The presence of non-local items at Monte Verde, such as plants, beach-rolled pebbles, quartz, and tar, indicates possible trade networks and other sites of human habitation of similar age.
The Monte Verde site has two distinct levels. The upper level, MV-II, has been extensively characterized. Its occupation is reliably dated to 14,800 – 13,800 BP.
The lower level, MV-I, is less well understood. It "was more ephemeral and came from ancient river sediments. Dillehay found charcoal scatters which may be the remnants of fireplaces next to possible stone and wood artifacts, and these were dated to at least 33,000BP." He acknowledges MV-I has "problems such as dubious human artifacts, questionable radiocarbon dates, or unreliable geological contexts" and hesitates "to accept this older level without more evidence and without sites of comparable age elsewhere in the Americas".
Monte Verde Level I (MV-I)
Monte Verde I is located under an outwash plain. In 2013, Dillehay and his team returned to perform another excavation at Monte Verde. In 2015, Monte Verde I was re-dated to around 18,500 to 14,500 BP. Charcoal remains, charred animal bone fragments and several lithic artefacts, about 34% of which was derived from non-local sources, were discovered.
Monte Verde Level II (MV-II)
According to Dillehay and his team, Monte Verde II was occupied around 14,800 – 13,800 BP by about twenty to thirty people. A twenty-foot-long tent-like structure of wood and animal hides was erected on the banks of the creek and was framed with logs and planks staked in the ground, making walls of poles covered with animal hides. Using ropes made of local reeds, the hides were tied to the poles creating separate living quarters within the main structure. Outside the tent-like structure, two large hearths had been built for community usage, most probably for tool making and craftwork.
Each of the living quarters had a brazier pit lined with clay. Around those hearths, many stone tools and remnants of spilled seeds, nuts, and berries were found. A 13,000-yr-old specimen of the wild potato, Solanum maglia, was also found at the site; these remains, the oldest on record for any species of potato, wild or cultivated, suggest that southern Chile was one of the two main centres for the evolution of Solanum tuberosum tuberosum, the common potato. Remains of forty-five different edible plant species were found within the site, over a fifth of them originating from up to 150 miles (240 km) away. This suggested that the people of Monte Verde either had trade routes or traveled regularly in this extended network.
Other important finds from this site include human coprolites, a footprint, assumed to have been made by a child, stone tools, and cordage. The date for this site was obtained by Dr. Dillehay with the use of radiocarbon dating of charcoal and bone found within the site.
In the May 9, 2008 issue of Science, a team reported that they identified nine species of seaweed and marine algae recovered from hearths and other areas in the ancient settlement. The seaweed samples were directly dated between 14,220 and 13,980 years ago, confirming that MV-II was occupied more than 1,000 years earlier than any other reliably dated human settlements in the Americas.
Comparison to other early Americas sites
MV-I has been reportedly radiocarbon dated to 33,000 years before present. As with other sites that suggest extremely early dates, such as the Topper site in South Carolina and Pedra Furada in Brazil, this deeper layer find remains controversial.
The only human settlement site in Southern Chile of comparable age to Monte Verde is Pilauco Bajo, dated to 12,500–11,000 years before present. Further south lies the Pali Aike Crater lava tube, dated to 14,000–10,000 years before present. Researchers postulated that the two sites were complementary – Monte Verde would be a habitation site, and Pilauco Bajo would be a hunting and scavenging site.
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