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Erie scientist leads what could be ground-breaking search for early Americans

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By Allison M. Heinrichs
Thursday, July 30, 2009
 

Andrew Hemmings walked Wednesday on a Florida beach that man hasn't set foot on in more than 13,000 years.

Not because it isn't a popular stretch of real estate — it's just that few people are able to don full scuba gear and dive 40 feet under water in the Gulf of Mexico for a stroll in the sand.

The University of Texas archaeologist is part of an elite team of scientists led by James Adovasio of Mercyhurst College in Erie. Adovasio, former chairman of the University of Pittsburgh's anthropology department, is looking for evidence of the earliest North American settlements along the coast of Florida that were submerged thousands of years ago by glacial ice melting.

"What we're looking for is evidence of the first Floridians," Adovasio said from a satellite phone aboard a scientific boat in the Gulf. "Their economy could have involved shells, sea mammals, fresh-water and marine fish. They potentially had a very different set of lifestyles than the early Americans we're accustomed to."

This is the second expedition to the Gulf that Adovasio, director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute, has led. Last summer he went on a scouting mission to find the most likely sites for early coastal settlements.

This year the scientific team that includes the University of Michigan, Harvard University, the University of South Florida and the University of Illinois is returning to those sites to take a closer look.

Hemmings compared the process of canvassing many different locations for evidence of settlements — such as stone tools or bones — to playing the lottery.

"Try as we might, we're not going to will ourselves to win the lottery," he said. "But to increase our odds, we're getting ourselves a lot of lottery tickets."

Adovasio has built his career on overturning theories about the first North American settlers. Three decades ago he uncovered campsites at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Washington County that are up to 16,000 years old, five millennia earlier than archaeologists suspected people were in the eastern United States.

If he can find settlements off the coast of Florida a few thousand years older, Adovasio could build a strong case that the first Americans ventured inland from the coastal southern states, rather than directly down through Alaska from the Bering land bridge connecting North America and Russia.

The tantalizing potential for such a discovery has attracted the attention of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which paid $120,000 to support this year's expedition.

"When you think of marine archaeology, you think of shipwrecks like Titanic, which we supported five years ago," said Nicolas Alvarado, a NOAA oceanographer on the expedition. "This is a totally new project for us to get into; it's on the edge of its field, really ground-breaking stuff."

 

 
 


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