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Did the First Americans Come from Asia, Europe or Someplace Else?

Updated on December 16, 2019
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Archaeology is one of Kelley's great passions. He's read many books on the subject, as well as every issue of "Archaeology" since 1987.

At last, scientists may know for certain who the first Americans were

According to theory and plenty of scientific investigation, the first Americans came to North America from 13,000 to 20,000 years ago - or was it 40,000 years ago? Let’s look into this fascinating issue and see if we can figure out how long ago modern humans came to the Americas and from where did they come.

Please keep reading!

Paisley Caves in Oregon
Paisley Caves in Oregon

Paisley Caves, Oregon

In an article entitled “When Did the First People Come to America?” on the website, dated 9/22/2008, archaeologists have been searching for artifacts and other scientific information in the Paisley Caves since the 1930s. Finally, in the summer of 2007, using radiocarbon dating, they found evidence proving that modern humans lived in the caves longer ago than just about any other ancient people in the Americas.

Fortunately, intact human DNA was found in coprolites, that is, ancient feces, which the people had left behind about 14,300 years ago. This was about 1,000 years before the oldest site for the Clovis culture, considered by most archaeologists and other scientists to be the oldest culture in the Americas.

Other artifacts were found at the site – basketry, animal bones and dart points - all of which date to approximately the same time period.

Clovis hunters
Clovis hunters
Clovis spear points and arrow heads
Clovis spear points and arrow heads

Clovis People

It seems safe to write that most archaeologists think the Clovis People trekked during the last ice age across what is now the Bering Straight from Asia to North America - across the glacially created land bridge known to scientists as Beringia – and thereby became the original inhabitants of the Americas. This is known as the Clovis First theory.

The name Clovis refers to distinctive stone tools, particularly the slender, fluted, bifacial spear points, commonly known as Clovis points, which have been found throughout North America, Mexico, Central America and even parts of northern South America. First discovered in the 1920s and ‘30s near Clovis, New Mexico, some of these artifacts date from 13,000 to 13,500 years old.

During this aforementioned time period, an ice-free corridor opened between the cordilleran mountains to the west and the vast Laurentide ice sheet in the east, through which these Clovis folks found a relatively easy migration route and eventually spread their culture throughout North America and beyond.

Moreover, it’s been suggested by many scientists that the Clovis People, using the advanced technology their stone tools provided, drove much of the ice age mega fauna - mammoth, bison, mastodon and other huge creatures - to extinction during this period. This is commonly called the Pleistocene overkill hypothesis.

In an article entitled “The First Americans,” published in the February 2013 issue of Smithsonian magazine, anthropologist Ted Goebel, after considering all the current evidence regarding the Clovis First theory, said, “It’s a very nice package, and that’s what sealed the deal. Clovis as the first Americans became the standard, and it’s really a high bar.”

Monte Verde, Chile

First excavated in 1975, this archaeological site in southern Chile has yielded artifacts that are roughly 14,800 years old, some 1,300 years older than those of the Clovis culture. It’s been hypothesized the people who produced these artifacts may have used boats to travel from Siberia to what is now Chile.

This coastal migration theory has many detractors, who claim that traveling 8,000 miles from Beringia to what is now Chile during a period of intense glaciation would have been nearly impossible. However, trekking this distance by land probably would have been even more difficult!

Nevertheless, the artifacts do exist and have been radiocarbon dated, which begs the question: How did they get there?

More such coastal archaeological sites need to be found and investigated in order to support the coastal migration theory. Unfortunately, in recent times, as glaciers have continued receding, the sea level has risen as much as 400 feet, inundating many coastal sites in Chile and elsewhere.

Buttermilk Creek artifacts
Buttermilk Creek artifacts

Buttermilk Creek Complex in Texas

But there appears to be an even older archaeological site in North America than there is in South America. Located near Salado, Texas, 15,500-year-old artifacts, including stone tools – more than 15,000 of them - have been discovered at the Buttermilk Creek Complex. This discovery makes it the oldest pre-Clovis site in North America.

Discovered among these various artifacts are Folsom points, similar to Clovis points but shorter and wider. However, these projectile points, first identified in 1927, were produced more recently, from 1,000 to 2,000 years later than Clovis points.

Nevertheless, the large number of artifacts of various kinds found at the Buttermilk Creek Complex - and the fact that the site supported human habitation for many centuries - makes this site a very impressive one with scientists.

The Story of Kennewick Man

In 1996, some passersby along the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington, discovered the ancient bones of an early American. Scientists would eventually ascertain that the bones were 9,600 years old. Skeletons of such great antiquity are seldom discovered in America, so scientists were overjoyed about the discovery of what came to be known as Kennewick Man.

Soon after the discovery, Native Americans claimed the bones belonged to their tribe or other tribes in the area, and they wanted the bones returned for reburial. But many scientists protested, saying that the bones lacked the genetic profile of current Native Americans. These scientists wanted the bones kept for further scientific investigation.

Scientists insist that Kennewick Man has the genetic signature of people from the islands of what are now Japan and the Kuril Islands, as well as Polynesia. They theorize that people such as Kennewick Man traveled in small boats from the islands of the western Pacific Ocean and eventually made it to the coast of North America, becoming in fact some of the first Americans.

Solutrean artwork
Solutrean artwork

Solutrean Migration Theory

First proposed in 1998, this theory suggests that the Paleolithic people of western Europe, particularly those of what is now Spain and France, traveled in boats from Europe to the northern coast of North America about 20,000 years ago. This was a time when the ice sheet covering the northern portion of the Atlantic Ocean had reached its last glacial maximum. Therefore, people in small boats may have been able to follow the ice sheet from Europe to North America.

Proponents of this Solutrean theory claim that Clovis points resemble those of the Solutrean culture. However, many scientists argue that the difference between Clovis and Solutrean stone technology is an insignificant one and doesn’t provide enough evidence to prove such a theory of great magnitude.

But archaeological finds at Cactus Hill Virginia seem to show a transitional period between Clovis and Solutrean styles. To lend credence to this interpretation, the Solutrean artifacts have been found beneath those of Clovis points (lower in the ground usually means older) and dated to between 15,000 to 17,000 years ago, making them perhaps the oldest artifacts found in the Americas.

Interestingly, other sites in Florida and Pennsylvania also show evidence of a transitional style between Clovis and Solutrean projectile points.

Pedra Furada
Pedra Furada
Pedra Furada pictographs
Pedra Furada pictographs

Pedra Furada in Brazil

This puzzling location in Brazil features more than 800 archaeological sites, where, supposedly, numerous artifacts of all kinds have been discovered. But the identity of these alleged artifacts and hearths, considered by many scientists to be nothing more than geofacts, is a subject of great dispute. (Geofacts are rocks, pieces of bone, wood or charcoal that could have been created by natural processes.)

Also in question is the purported age of these “artifacts.” Many of the pictographs and stone tools have been dated from 5,000 to 11,000 years old, but others have been dated from 40,000 to 60,000 B.P. (before the present). Regarding the dating of American artifacts, it’s safe to point out that most scientists consider any date beyond 20,000 years B.P. to be more fantasy than fact. This site will have to yield many unequivocal archaeological discoveries before prehistory can be re-written.

Easter Island statues
Easter Island statues

Another Theory

Some scientists think the first Americans may have been people who traveled in boats from the islands of the South Pacific to South America. This makes sense since the ancient Polynesians were known for their prowess with boats and sailed widely throughout the South Pacific. But there’s little evidence that any people from the South Pacific sailed any farther east than Easter Island, one of the remotest places on earth and over 2,000 miles from the coast of South America.

How people may have crossed Beringia?
How people may have crossed Beringia?

Recent Genetic Evidence for Native Americans

According to an episode of the TV show Nova entitled “The Great Human Odyssey” (2016), using genetic evidence in the skeletal remains of people found in North America in recent years, scientists have learned that Native Americans have a separate genetic signature. Moreover, some 16,500 to 15,000 years ago, their ancestors, having distinct genetic components, came from Siberia and Southeast Asia, and then entered North America by crossing Beringia and then moving south over the centuries, eventually reaching the southern tip of South America.


Since the world, both on land and under the sea, is covered with innumerable archaeological sites, much is left to be discovered by archaeologists and other scientists regarding the identity of the first Americans. Was it Clovis First or an as yet undiscovered culture about which we know little or nothing? Only time will tell, of course, so stay tuned for the latest news.

Please leave a comment.

© 2013 Kelley Marks


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