Were the Americas inhabited 30,000 years ago?

One of the most dramatic discoveries to fuel the debate about the date of habitation in the Americas was made in a streambed in southern Uruguay – a set of 30,000-year-old fossilised animals which show distinctive marks left by human tools . The immense significance of the discovery is that mainstream archaeology says that humans began arriving in the Americas between 13,000 and 15,000 years ago, and the Clovis people of North and Central America are generally considered the “first Americans.”

The fossils were first uncovered in 1997 when severe drought led local farmers to drain a lagoon in Arroyo del Vizcaíno, which exposed many fossilised animal remains. But these weren’t just any animals. The bones were gigantic.

It wasn’t until 2011 that a team of palaeontologists managed to break their way through the bureaucratic roadblocks to excavate the site, and over the next two years they unearthed thousands of fossils. It turns out that the bones belong to giant sloths weighing up to 4 tonnes (the size of a small elephant), saber-toothed cats, oversized armadillos, and other mega fauna that roamed the Americas until around 11,000 years ago.

Hunting mega fauna. Credit: Heinrich Harder

In an analysis published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B in November 2013, it was revealed that the fossils at Arroyo del Vizcaíno have been radiocarbon dated to between 29,000 to 30,000 years old. And, astonishingly, the bones had marks left by human tools. The team also found a potentially human-made scraper that could have been used on dry animal hides, and stone flakes. If this is indeed the case, it means that humans inhabited the Americas at least 15,000 years before previously thought.

Study co-author Richard Fariña said the strength of the evidence lies in the team’s methodology and the fact that two of the bones they tested for dating also bore markings similar to those made by human tools. “The association can’t be closer than it is,” he said.

But of course, such dramatic findings are never accepted easily. There are already suggestions that the markings on the bones are the product of nature mimicking human tools.

Further excavations at the site are already planned and it is estimated that it could yield a thousand more bones.

Mystery Settlers Reached ‘Step to Americas’ Before Vikings

New research published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews has found that the Faroes islands, the first stepping stones for Europeans as they explored across the Atlantic to ultimately land in the Americas, were colonized up to 500 years before the large-scale Viking colonisation.

The Faroes are located halfway between Norway and Iceland and it was believed that the Vikings were the first to land on the isles in the ninth century when they first set out from the Scottish archipelago of the Shetlands and which eventually culminated in the European discovery of continental North America in the 11 th century.

Now, scientists have discovered firm archaeological evidence “for the human colonization of the Faroes by people some 300 to 500 years before the large-scale Viking colonization of the ninth century, although we don’t yet know who these people were or where they came from,” said Mike Church, an environmental archaeologist at the Durham University in England.

The research took place at an archaeological site of Á Sondum on the island of Sandoy. The investigation revealed an extensive windblown sand deposit containing patches of burnt peat ash from human activity. This ash contained barley grains burnt in domestic hearths, which carbon dating showed was pre-Viking. Barley is not indigenous to the Faroes, so it must have been either grown or brought to the islands by humans.

“This is the first archaeological evidence that proves there were humans there at the Faroes prior to the big Viking colonization event,” Church said.

However, who these colonizers were and what they were doing there remains a mystery. Possibilities include religious hermits from Ireland, late-Iron Age colonists from Scotland or pre-Viking explorers from Scandinavia. Unfortunately, the large scale Viking colonization would have destroyed most of the archaeological evidence for earlier settlement, making it very difficult to get to the bottom of the mystery.

The new research challenges the scale, timing and nature of human settlement of the wider North Atlantic region and has implications for surrounding areas which may also have been colonized prior to the Vikings.