29 July 2020
A cave in a remote part of Mexico was visited by humans around 30,000 years ago – 15,000 years earlier than people were previously thought to have reached the Americas.
Excavations of Chiquihuite Cave, located in a mountainous area in northern Mexico controlled by drugs cartels, uncovered nearly 2,000 stone tools from a small section of the high-altitude cave.
Archaeological analysis of the tools and DNA analysis of the sediment in the cave uncovered a new story of the colonisation of the Americas which now traces evidence of the first Americans back to 25,000-30,000 years ago.
Chiquihuite Cave is a high-altitude site, 2750 metres above sea level. Nearly 2,000 stone tools and small tool fragments, known as flakes, were discovered. DNA analysis of the plant and animal remains from the sediment packed around the tools in the cave dates the tools and the human occupation of the site to 25,000-30,000 years ago. Human DNA was not found which adds weight to the theory that the early people didn’t stay for long in the cave.
America's oldest hotel?
DNA scientist Professor Eske Willerslev, of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, University of Copenhagen, led the study with archaeologist Dr Ciprian Ardelean, of the University of Zacatecas in Mexico.
Professor Willerslev said: “For decades people have passionately debated when the first humans entered the Americas. Chiquihuite Cave will create a lot more debate as it is the first site that dates the arrival of people to the continent to around 30,000 years ago - 15,000 years earlier than previously thought. These early visitors didn’t occupy the cave continuously, we think people spent part of the year there using it as a winter or summer shelter, or as a base to hunt during migration. This could be the Americas oldest ever hotel.”
The 10-year long research project raises more questions about the early humans who lived in the Americas than it solves.
A complete enigma
Dr Ardelean said: “We don’t know who they were, where they came from or where they went. They are a complete enigma. We falsely assume that the indigenous populations in the Americas today are direct descendants from the earliest Americans, but now we do not think that is the case.
“By the time the famous Clovis population entered America, the very early Americans had disappeared thousands of years before. There could have been many failed colonisations that were lost in time and did not leave genetic traces in the population today.”
Rethinking the search
Dr Mikkel Winther Pedersen, a geneticist from the University of Copenhagen and one of the first authors of the paper, said: “We identified DNA from a wide range of animals including black bears, rodents, bats, voles and even kangaroo rats. We think these early people would probably have come back for a few months a year to exploit reoccurring natural resources available to them and then move on. Probably when herds of large mammals would have been in the area and who had little experience with humans so they would have been easy prey. The location of Chiquihuite Cave definitely rewrites what has conventionally been taught in history and archaeology and shows that we need to rethink where we look for sites of the earliest people in Americas.”