- First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America
The time is particularly ripe for a new, integrative summary and reappraisal of the evidence for and our understanding of the prehistoric peopling of the Americas. In recent years, a pre-Clovis inhabitation of the New World has been accepted by a majority of archaeologists [End Page 149] (a revolutionary development, after decades of skepticism), there is a new openness toward coastal route entry scenarios, and the development of genetic evidence has offered new, rich models of prehistoric colonization. We are fortunate, then, to have the recent book by David J. Meltzer, First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America, a state-of-the-art summary by one of anthropology's leading scholars of early American prehistory. Its thoroughness, attention to complexity and debate, and eminent readability mark it as a significant contribution for specialists and nonspecialists alike.
The book's central questions are straightforward: who first colonized the Americas (i.e., one migratory pulse or several?), when did they come, how and why did they make the journey across Beringia and throughout two continents, what were their cultural adaptations, and—importantly—what range of possible answers to these questions does the substantial and growing (but necessarily incomplete) body of evidence support? Meltzer's approach regarding this last question is particularly notable. First, he brings together in one volume a vast wealth of interdisciplinary data and models, drawing adroitly on archaeology, geology, chemistry, linguistics, genetics, anatomy, ecology, and epidemiology. Meltzer's narrative, however, is not merely a masterful orchestration of facts, but a series of compelling historical and contemporary vignettes, with real people and personalities, that illustrates how science operates. The development of theories about the peopling of the Americas during the Paleoindian Period (ca. 12,000-10,000 B.P.) has always been dependent on the interaction of raw data with politics, power, and personalities, and Meltzer's integration of historical figures such as Charles Abbot and Aleš Hrdlicka serves dual purposes—they simultaneously demonstrate the contingencies of scientific progress and provide enthralling reading.
The book's ten chapters investigate different but overlapping questions regarding early American prehistory (and thus could serve as useful excerpts for student readings or the interested layperson). After providing a broader context in American prehistory, the first two chapters provide detailed summaries of archaeological methods and geologic and ecological perspectives on the landscapes the first Americans must have traversed. Chapters 3 and 4 provide a historical account of the evolution of our understanding of the Paleoindian Period—including the personalities, controversies, and sidepaths that marked that evolution—and of the recent resolution of the "Pre-Clovis Controversy" with the remarkable pre-Clovis Monte Verde site in Chile. (Here, Meltzer's insider account of the meeting of leading archaeologists at a bar in Chile to discuss the validity of the site adds a storyline almost as [End Page 150] compelling as the revolutionary site itself.) Chapters 5 and 6 assess the genetic, linguistic, and morphological (dental and cranial) evidence for early human migrations into the Americas with close analytical attention to points of convergence and divergence among the varied approaches.
Chapter 7 is particularly fascinating, although by necessity the book's most speculative: how and why did early Americans fan out across two unknown continents so rapidly? (The dispersal of hunter-gatherer populations from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in less than one thousand years sets something of a prehistoric speed record.) Meltzer's discussions of "landscape learning" and "wayfinding" in this chapter, based upon cross-cultural examples and predictive models from behavioral ecology, kindles the imagination as well as scholarly understanding of this rapid and poorly known prehistoric expansion. In chapter 8, Meltzer's objective is clear: with logical and empirical cannons ablaze, he dismantles and discredits the "Overkill Hypothesis" that attributes the extinction of thirty-five genera of late Pleistocene megafauna in the Americas to newly arrived humans. While his arguments and review of evidence convinced...