Dig Diary: Sweating for Science
by Chelsea Rose
During my week in South Carolina, I watched the local pros at Topper calmly shoo snakes out of the units (and the girls' bathroom!), sweep aside fierce and furry spiders and endure the Southern heat with heroic indifference. But more importantly, I was lucky enough to spend a few days helping tackle a few of the biggest archaeological controversies in North America: pre-Clovis people and the Clovis Comet.
Going deep undercover
I spent a hot, muggy, buggy day troweling through South Carolinian paleosoils looking for truly ancient artifacts. Were humans frolicking alongside the Savannah River thousands of years before the Clovis people? This was a question the team toiling in the the damp and stuffy pre-Clovis excavation were determined to answer. With a great bunch of folks and such a fascinating purpose, I was glad to throw my trowel in for a few hours and help out. The grad students and volunteers at work in the pit willingly brave unpleasant conditions in search of the smoking gun (or, shall I say smoking chert tool?) that would definitively link humans with the deep and ancient geological strata they are working through. The team's meticulous efforts have produced several bits of intriguing evidence, but their findings remain highly controversial. While many archaeologists are warming to the idea that humans were in the Americas 15 or even 20 thousand years ago, the idea that people were here 50 thousand years ago not only blasts through the Clovis barrier at the speed of light, but also raises other questions about who was here. Neanderthals were still going strong in Europe at this point! Needless to say, the Topper crew has a formidable task ahead of them. Regardless of the challenge, they continually strive to do good science, to cross all of their T's and dot all their I's, so that if they turn up that smoking bit of prehistoric projectile point 4 meters below the Clovis layer, the world will have no choice but to listen.
You had me at nanodiamonds
It is not everyday that testing a scientific theory involves collecting diamonds. Lucky for me, one of the ways researchers are testing the theory that a comet fell to earth roughly 13,000 years ago landing with a big kerplop in Canada, is to search for microscopic evidence of this event. Nanodiamonds are produced through a combination of high pressure and extremely high temperatures and would not end up in the soil under normal conditions. With that in mind, Dr. Allen West has been visiting archaeological sites across America in order to sample the soil associated with the Clovis-era occupations. West believes that if he finds nanodiamonds on and above the Clovis material, but not below, this would further support the idea that a cataclysmic comet event could have taken place at that time. Although they face a healthy dose of skepticism, West and his colleagues continue to amass evidence from several disciplines in support of their comet theory.
In the modern era it is easy to think we know everything. The Topper site is a great example of scientists taking fresh approaches to the understanding of human history. It is important that we continue to reevaluate the past and refreshing to think of how much more we have left to discover.