WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA Teacher's effort to teach archaeology provided world with startling news
By HAROLD GWIN
VINDICATOR SHARON BUREAU
SHARON, Pa. -- Dr. James M. Adovasio had no idea the dig he launched near Avella, Pa., nearly 30 years ago would set the archaeological world on its ear.
The former Youngstown resident and instructor at Youngstown State University was just looking for a good location for a site where his University of Pittsburgh students could correctly learn the skills of archaeology.
What he found was a lot more.
Before the excavations at Meadowcroft Rockshelter along Cross Creek near the Ohio border just southwest of Pittsburgh, it was a commonly held belief in the archaeology community that the oldest evidence of human habitation in North America had been found at Clovis, N.M., in the early 1900s.
Material found at Clovis indicated man had been there as early as 11,500 years ago, and that supported the theory that man came to North America via the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska around 12,000 years ago.
Adovasio said evidence uncovered at Meadowcroft in 1973 and 1974, including fire pits, flaked stones and a 3-inch-long spear point, shattered that mark, proving that humans were active in Pennsylvania thousands of years before the earliest evidence of habitation at Clovis.
Results of testing
Radio carbon dating and other testing have shown that artifacts found at Meadowcroft date back 16,000 years, before the Ice Age ended, he said. That means the earliest Bering Strait crossing more likely occurred between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago, he said.
The finds provoked widespread debate and not a little acrimony among supporters of the Clovis site theory of where the earliest Americans settled.
Adovasio, now director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute at Mercyhurst College in Erie, said the attack against him and his findings was so abusive that one would think he had attacked their religion.
Today, all but the most adamant Clovis supporters accept the findings at Meadowcroft, he said, noting that subsequent finds elsewhere in the Americas older than Clovis helped to change a lot of people's minds.
He's put the story of Meadowcroft, as well as the history of the examination of the peopling of the Americas, in a book co-written with Jake Page, a former editor of Natural History magazine and science editor of Smithsonian magazine.
His book, "The First Americans: In Pursuit of Archaeology's Greatest Mystery," has been published by Random House and came out in late August.
The first printing of about 15,000 copies was quickly sold, primarily to a nonacademic audience, and Random House has a second printing under way, Adovasio said.
He said he didn't realize the antiquity of the rock outcropping at Meadowcroft when he first looked at it, suspecting that it might be 4,000 or 5,000 years old.
However, as work began, he said he soon realized the site was unique.
Disputing the Clovis contention as the oldest evidence of human habitation "isn't anything we set out to do," Adovasio said, adding that it's taken nearly 30 years for the findings to be accepted by the archaeology community.
The dig has turned up more than 20,000 artifacts, nearly 1 million animal bones and about 1.5 million plant remains, providing one of the longest records of early human visitation to any single spot in the entire New World, he said.
He's still the director of the Meadowcroft dig but it's only one of numerous projects he and the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute are involved in. They've done extensive excavations in France and will go to Spain next summer. There are plans to do other digs elsewhere in the Americas as well, he said.
The institute also did the recovery work for the Sept. 11, 2001, crash of the terrorist-hijacked airliner near Shanksville, Pa., and the earlier Flight 424 crash near Pittsburgh.
Adovasio, 58, credits his mother, Lena, who still lives on Firnley Avenue in Youngstown, with whetting his appetite for archaeology. She got him interested in reading about paleontology, geology and history as a child and that interest never waned, he said.