Topper is an archaeological site located along the Savannah River in Allendale County, South Carolina, United States. It is noted as a location of artifacts which some archaeologists believe to indicate human habitation of the New World earlier than the Clovis culture. The latter were previously believed to be the first people in North America.
Artifacts at this site may predate Clovis by 3,000 years or more, but these conclusions are disputed. The primary excavation has gone down to a level that dates to at least 50,000 B.C., searching for evidence of cultural artifacts. Until increasing challenges in the first decade of the 21st century to the Clovis theory based on this site and others, it was unusual for archaeologists to dig deeper than the layer of the Clovis culture, as they then believed that no human artifacts would be found older than Clovis. Among the objects from the "pre-Clovis" stratum, dated to 16,000-20,000 years BP, is a large piece nicknamed the "Topper Chopper." This apparent tool offers some of the most compelling evidence for human agency, including bifacial flaking of the edge.
Topper lies along the eastern side of the Savannah River. The site is somewhat hilly: the lowest section lies along the river at an elevation between 80 feet (24 m) and 90 feet (27 m), while the highest is the site's eastern edge, which rises above 130 feet (40 m). It measures approximately 0.1 miles (0.16 km) east-west and slightly more than half of that distance north-south, although the full extent of the archaeological deposits has not yet been determined. The site is located on a large parcel of secure, private land owned by Archroma, a color and specialty chemicals company and is not open for public access.
Since the 1930s, the prevailing theory concerning the peopling of the New World is that the first human inhabitants were the Clovis people, who are thought to have appeared approximately 13,500 years ago. Artifacts of the Clovis people are found throughout most of the United States and as far south as Panama in Central America. Since the early 21st century, this standard theory has been challenged based on the discovery and dating of pre-Clovis sites such as Monte Verde in Southern Chile, Cactus Hill in Virginia, and Buttermilk Creek in Texas. To date, no consistent pre-Clovis cultural patterns have been established; the accuracy of these claims has been disputed, though that dispute is tipping in favor of the pre-Clovis occupation of the New World.
Pre Clovis dispute
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In 2004, Albert Goodyear of the University of South Carolina announced that carbonized plant remains, found as a dark stain in the light soil at the lowest excavated level at the Topper Site, had been radiocarbon dated to approximately 50,000 years ago, or approximately 37,000 years before the Clovis people. Goodyear, who began excavating the Topper site in the 1980s, believes that lithic objects at that level are rudimentary stone tools (and thus "artifacts"). Other archaeologists dispute this conclusion, suggesting that the objects are natural and not human-made. Some archaeologists also have challenged the radiocarbon dating of the carbonized remains at Topper, arguing that 1) the stain represented the result of a natural fire, and 2) 50,000 years is the theoretical upper limit of effective radiocarbon dating, meaning that the stratum is radiocarbon dead, rather than dating to that time period. Goodyear discovered the objects by digging 4 meters deeper than the Clovis artifacts readily found at the site. Before discovering the oldest lithics, he had discovered other objects which he claimed were tools dating around 16,000 years old, or about 3,000 years before Clovis.
According to Dean Snow, this assertion of 3,000 years is a much more likely and plausible number than the upper limit of radiocarbon dating. Evidence predating Clovis culture by a few thousand years is popularly termed as the "pioneer" stage of Clovis culture. This would be the birth of the culture and the start of the tool set. Researchers agree that the lack of evidence would stem from the lack of materials at hand. New techniques would take time to spread. The pioneer hypothesis allows for tools to predate by centuries rather than millennia.
The annual Allendale expedition (which ended in 2012) allowed non-archaeologists to work at the site as volunteer archaeologists in late spring and early summer. They worked in various field and lab roles on teams headed by professional archaeologists and graduate students.
Current research and excavations
In the summer of 2015, two archaeological field schools took place at or near Topper. David G. Anderson continued block excavations on the hilltop portion of the site along with Derek T. Anderson to further investigate the spatial patterns associated with the site's Paleoindian, Archaic, and Woodland period occupants. D. Shane Miller directed a concurrent survey project on the property, to follow up on the original chert quarry survey conducted by Goodyear and Tommy Charles and to examine site formation processes across the quarry landscape.
- Smallwood, Ashley M. "Clovis Biface Technology at the Topper Site, South Carolina: Evidence for Variation and Technological Flexibility". Journal of Archaeological Science 37 (2010): 2413-2425: 2414.
- "Archroma homepage". Archroma.
- Snow, Dean R. (2010). Archaeology of Native North America. Boston: Prentice Hall. p. 44. ISBN 978-0-13-615686-4.
- "Rethinking Clovis at Topper: June 2012". XARK 3.0. Retrieved 3 April 2015.
- "Topper Site page". Stone and Bone. Retrieved 3 April 2015.
- "2015 Topper Site Field School". SEAC Underground. Retrieved 3 April 2015.
- "2015 Allendale Chert Quarry Survey Field School". SEAC Underground. Retrieved 3 April 2015.