People were burning fires at a quarry near the Savannah River as far back as 50,000 years ago. That would have been before the worst of the last Ice Age and millennia before South Carolina is thought to have been inhabited.
The stunning finding from the Topper site near Allendale could rock the staid research world less than two decades after Al Goodyear’s first dig there took the lid off conventional archaeological thinking.
“Topper is a lot older than 15,000 years ago,” Goodyear said, referring to the date he established with his earlier work. “I think this is going to be the next frontier (of exploring human origins). When and where did our people begin, when and where did they disperse. There’s a lot at stake here.”
Remains of charcoal deep in the ground were found to be approximately 50,000 years old when they were radio-carbon dated. Other stone tool artifacts were uncovered alongside them. Goodyear and the Topper team are preparing the findings for peer-review publication.
He talked about it to put in context the startling recent find of stone tools, animal bones that had been butchered and a mastodon tusk at a Florida dig.
“If the dating is solid and the artifacts identified as being anthropogenic (man-made) without any doubt, this is a splendid addition to our knowledge of the early human occupation of North America,” said Phil Manning, College of Charleston paleontologist.
“I have no doubt that this will be a hotly debated topic for some time, as paradigm shifts often take a while to gain acceptance, but the evidence appears to be solid.”
For Goodyear, a retired S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology professor at the University of South Carolina, it all started with a chert chopper, a piece of stone with a blade face hammered out of it. That’s what he first found in the 1990s at Topper: chert choppers and cores, waste flakes and other small tools.
The pieces and the blades cut in them were relatively small, suggesting they were used to carve ornaments from bone, ivory and antler. They were dug up from a point deeper in soil sediment than the Clovis tools are found that date humans in the Americas back 12,000 to 13,000 years ago.
It sparked a roiling controversy in the field, which widely had accepted that Clovis people were the earliest settlers.
Critics argued whether the tools found were really “pre-Clovis” and whether the stone pieces actually were hammered by humans and not split by nature. The dispute was so fervent that it still gets batted back and forth in some quarters.
But now there are several sites in the eastern United States with comparable finds, Goodyear said. And a recently published analysis of his artifacts demonstrated they could only have been manufactured. Meanwhile, the team has gone deeper than the pre-Clovis depth where they found those first pieces, where they found the evidence of earlier occupation.
“I do believe the Topper site and a few sites in South America are pre-Last Glacial Maximum,” he said, a period more than 20,000 years ago when glaciers stretched south farthest and closest to today’s South Carolina, a time when icebergs drifted in the Atlantic Ocean offshore.
The Florida finding is that at the end of that last Ice Age, hunters and maybe their dogs tracked down a mastodon along a river in today’s Florida panhandle, slaughtered and feasted on the long-tusked, elephant-like giant — earlier than anyone knew people were there.
Published earlier this month in Science Advances, the finding was made by a team from Florida State, Texas A&M and other universities, who studied stone tools and mastodon bones dating to 14,550 years old. They dug them up underwater at the Page Ladson site in the Aucilla River, a few miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico near Tallahassee.
“Hunter-gatherers, possibly accompanied by dogs, butchered or scavenged a mastodon carcass at the sinkhole’s edge next to a small pond,” the paper reads. “These people had successfully adapted to their environment; they knew where to find fresh water, game, plants, raw materials for making tools, and other critical resources for survival.”
The Florida finding is “one more nail in the coffin” to the controversy stirred with the Topper findings nearly two decades ago, Goodyear said. “I’m really happy it’s out there.” The real value of Page Ladson, though, is the concrete evidence that people at that time were hunting mastodon, he said.