Conventional knowledge holds that indigenous peoples have populated the Americas since the time of the last ice age.
But one graduate student at Binghamton University hopes to challenge this convention with a lecture that introduces an online database of archaeological finds in the Americas she created that is one of the most comprehensive of its kind.
Paulette Steeves, a member of the Cree nation who earned her masters in anthropology from BU last year and who is now pursuing her doctorate, compiled the Western Hemisphere Indigenous Peoples Pleistocene Data Base, which catalogs hundreds of archaeological sites across the American continents that provide evidence for human habitation in the Americas from anywhere between 14,000 and 40,000 years ago, or perhaps much earlier.
The database, available at www.whippdb.com, will feature aggregated information on about 800 archaeological sites. What makes these sites unique is that the artifacts they contained — including tools, fractured bones and other signs of human habitation — may indicate that humans lived in the Western Hemisphere much earlier than previously thought.
“Advancing technology has really supported archaeological studies,” said Steeves, who worked with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science this past summer uncovering artifacts from several ancient sites.
She said new methods of analysis can pinpoint the presence of certain animals based on proteins found in soils, and that types of wood, seeds, food and animal remains that are signs of human activity can be used to date humans to older eras than before. According to Steeves, some archaeologists have uncovered evidence for the existence of humans in the Americas as early as 200,000 years ago.
That assertion would previously have been cast aside as unsupported by scientific evidence within the traditional archaeology viewpoint, Steeves said.
The National Museum of the American Indian, a division of the Smithsonian, does not hold an artifact older than 12,000 years.
Spencer Wells, a Cornell University professor, archaeologist and geneticist who works with the National Geographic Society, wrote in his 2002 book, “The Journey of Man,” that the first appearance of humans in the Americas “could have happened any time between 40,000 and 12,000 years ago.”
Steeves believes that the actual range of time extends much further back, but for her, it is also much more than a numbers game.
“It’s more than just talking about a time frame,” she said. Rather, it is about writing a “decolonized history,” she said, one that questions the fundamental assumptions of a history written by European conquerors.
Steeves is promoting the launch of her database with a lecture that will feature Steve Holen, one of the premier archaeologists who studies extinct mammals that existed at the time of early American humans.
Steeves said Holen, who works with the Denver Museum, will discuss Steeves’ project and give a PowerPoint presentation. He will also speak to the reasons he believes conventional science has underestimated the length of time humans have lived in the Americas.
The lecture will take place at 7:30 p.m. today in Science I room 149. Prior to now, Steeves said, ideas like hers have been suppressed in mainstream academia.
“Talks like this are just starting to happen,” she said. “People are very comfortable with the old paradigm.”
But Steeves hopes that this research will also have a broader impact.
She hopes to explain “how this reflects on contemporary popular history and how this will help [contribute to] a healing” for indigenous peoples.
According to Steeves, poverty and marginalization are facts of reservation life for many indigenous peoples. She said reassessing popular notions of history can lead to a broader acceptance of indigenous American culture and a broader awareness of indigenous peoples’ struggles.