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Chile or Bust: Tracing the path of the first Americans

New finds from Oregon and Chile support the idea that they arrived 3,000 years earlier than previously thought.

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Coming to America: The sandy beaches near Monte Verde in northern Chile. Scientists say some of the Americas' first humans gathered seaweed here.

Tom Dillehay/Vanderbilt University

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Half-chewed seaweed in southern Chile and fossilized feces unearthed in an Oregon cave are helping scientists build a case for the arrival of the first migrants in the Americas thousands of years earlier than previously believed.

These archaeological finds – unveiled within the past month – contribute to an evolving story in which the first migrants arrived in the Americas from Siberia between 15,000 and 16,000 years ago. They then appear to have trekked south along the west coasts of North and South America.

Some researchers say the new finds also allow them to begin speculating about social organization, health practices, and how well the newcomers exploited their diverse surroundings.

Several researchers working on the question remain skeptical of the revised picture. Scientific debates over the first appearance of humans in the Western Hemisphere are far from over, acknowledges Ted Goebel, associate director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

But in a recent article surveying the field, he and two colleagues note that the longstanding view that the so-called Clovis culture represents the earliest human occupation of the Americas is getting harder to defend. It would mean rejecting the growing number of sites that appear much earlier, "and this appears to be no longer possible," they write.

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