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In Pursuit of Archaeology’s Greatest Mystery

by J.M. Adovasio with Jake Page

Pub Date: Aug. 27th, 2002
ISBN: 0-375-50552-0
Publisher: Random House

Engrossing account of recent developments in a long-running and contentious scientific debate.

With the exception of the creationism vs. evolution controversy, few areas of contemporary science have engendered such fierce dogmatism and even fiercer adherents as the questions of who the first Americans were and when they got here. Assisted by science writer and editor Page (The Lethal Partner, 1996, etc.), Adovasio presents his case with reasonableness and clarity. He begins with his early fieldwork at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter near Pittsburgh, where in 1974 he found charcoal from two hearths that placed humans in the vicinity nearly 4,000 years before they supposedly have set foot anywhere on the continent. Though he vowed not to, the author became ensnared in what anthropologist Tom D. Dillehay has called the “dishonesty, double standards, and phony scientific posture” of scholars with an axe to grind or a reputation to uphold at all costs. At issue was the sacrosanct notion that nomadic mammoth hunters crossed the frozen Bering Strait during the last glacial period about 12,000 years ago. Now director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute, Adovasio contends humans arrived millennia earlier, most likely by boat, and that the contributions of women were more critical to their success than previously credited. Despite the existence of such widely accepted methods as radiocarbon dating, much evidence about the time of human habitation in the Americas has been automatically discounted by opponents of whatever theory the dating supports. Add to this the fact that various ethnic groups, including modern Native Americans, have a vested interest in the first Americans being their ancestors, whether a lost band of Israelites or survivors of a sunken Atlantis or wandering Welshmen in sealskin coracles, and you have all the ingredients for an intellectual brouhaha that frequently reached the vitriolic flashpoint.

Affording glimpses into both scientific detection processes and vicious academic infighting, this will appeal to scientists and general readers alike.