Paleoamerican Odyssey

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When did people colonize the Americas? From where did they come? What routes did they take? How did they explore and adapt to all the new environments they encountered during their journey? Did the first people to occupy the continent have anything to do with the extinction of large mammals at the end of the Pleistocene? These questions and more have gripped scientists for decades, but until recently answers have proven difficult to find. New techniques of molecular genetic analysis, and a reinvigorated search for early archaeological sites across the western hemisphere, recently have led to some astonishing discoveries that are changing our views of the Ice Age colonization of the Americas.

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Explaining when and how early modern humans entered the New World and adapted to its varied environments is one of archaeology’s most exciting and enduring questions. Until recently, it was generally believed that about 13,500 years ago the first migrants spread rapidly from Beringia to Tierra del Fuego in a few centuries, passing through the interior “ice-free”corridor in western Canada, becoming Clovis, and hunting to extinction the last of the New World’s mammoths and mastodons. Today, we realize that the peopling of the Americas was a much more complex process, because of two significant developments that occurred during the past decade. Molecular geneticists, using refined methods and an ever-increasing sample of living populations and ancient remains, are now capable of providing reliable information on the Old World origins of the first Americans, timing of their initial migration to the New World, and the number of major dispersal events. Archeologists, with renewed vigor since the discovery of the Monte Verde site in Chile, have found new sites and re-investigated old ones using new methods, to test whether a “pre-Clovis” population existed in North and South America, and to explain how early populations colonized its empty landscapes. Conference goals were to provide an up-to-date interdisciplinary synthesis of the topic, especially the current molecular genetic and archaeological records, and present new ideas to explain the dispersal of modern humans into the New World.

The Paleoamerican Odyssey conference was held October 17-19, 2013 at the Sweeney Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was the largest gathering of this type since the 1999 Clovis and Beyond Conference. During the conference specialists in peopling of the Americas studies presented results of the most recent, cutting-edge research on the topic. Conference attendees interacted with archaeologists, geneticists, and physical anthropologists conducting this research. The first day conference presentations focused on the oldest sites in Siberia, the early prehistory of Japan, the cultural traditions of Beringia, routes taken by these ancient explorers, and the genetic record. On the second day, researchers discussed the latest thinking about Clovis, extinction of the megafauna, the western stemmed tradition, and the archaeological record of South America. On the final day, the focus shifted to the older-than-Clovis record at key sites across the Americas and how these and other sites provide the basis for a new understanding of the peopling of the Americas.