KU alumni on research team that ‘threatens to upend human history’ in North America

Posted on Apr 27, 2017 in Alumni News and News

KU alumni on research team that ‘threatens to upend human history’ in North America
study published Wednesday in the prestigious journal Nature could obliterate all previous notions about the earliest human migration to North America, from the current consensus of about 15,000 years ago to a staggering 130,000 years ago.

This startling claim is made by a scientific team that features two KU doctoral alumni: lead author Steven Holen, PhD’02, director of the Center for American Paleolithic Research in South Dakota, and co-author Jared Beeton, PhD’07, professor of physical geography at Adams State University in Colorado.

Holen, Beeton and nine other colleagues from the U.S. and Australia have long studied mastodon bones unearthed during a 1992 highway construction project in San Diego County, California. The first scientists at the site, from the San Diego Museum of Natural History, began the arduous process of documenting the site, including a puzzling jigsaw of large rocks, which seemingly could not have been a naturally occurring part of the silt layer in which the bones were found, and crushed mastodon bones.

They eventually concluded that marks on the bones could only have been made by the rocks, perhaps in an attempt to extract bone marrow from leg bones, and that the rocks could not otherwise have been placed at the site by natural geological processes.

Their research then took a startling turn when scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey dated the mastodon bones to 130,000 years ago, give or take 9,400 years, and the San Diego site suddenly became perhaps the most important archaeological find in recent memory.

“If the scientists are right, they would significantly alter our understanding of how humans spread around the planet,” The New York Times reported April 26. “The earliest widely accepted evidence of people in the Americas is less than 15,000 years old. … If humans actually were in North America over 100,000 years earlier, they may not be related to any living group of people. Modern humans probably did not expand out of Africa until 50,000 to 80,000 years ago, recent genetic studies have shown.”

The 130,000-year-old mastodon, exclaimed Wired magazine, “threatens to upend human history.”

Beeton was the first graduate student in KU’s Odyssey Archaeological Research Program, which offers KU undergraduate and graduate students field experience in finding evidence of the earliest people to inhabit the central Great Plains.

The Odyssey program, directed by Rolfe Mandel, g’80, PhD’91, University Distinguished Professor of anthropology, was launched in 2003 with an endowment from Joseph and Ruth Cramer.

“I still remember Joe saying to me, ‘Rolfe, I’m not just putting this money up for you to go out and wander around looking for sites. I want you to train students to go out and look.’ And that’s exactly what happened,” says Mandel, also interim director of Kansas Geological Survey, which conducted blind testing of soil samples collected at the San Diego site. “It’s gratifying to see that it works. Joe Cramer would have loved to have heard that this is an example of where his investment produced a student who went out and pushed the envelope.

“If he were alive he’d be very gratified, but it’s also very gratifying to me, regardless of how this all shakes out. It may turn out this site’s a bust. That could happen. But regardless of that, I’ve got to give them credit for looking, and certainly for pushing the envelope. I do sort of feel like these are my children going out and doing what I told them to try to do.”

—Chris Lazzarino



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