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Fla. area set to eclipse Meadowcroft as oldest site of human habitation

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A undated, 2014 drone photo shows a prehistoric site near Vero Beach, Fla., where humans may have lived side by side with extinct Late Ice Age mammals as many as 19,000 years ago, say archaeologists from Mercyhurst University. They are excavating the site, which could be the oldest in North America. The white structure protects the excavation site. Photo courtesy of Mercyhurst Archeological Institute.

Washington County’s Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village — the oldest known site of human habitation in North America — might soon get competition.

Humans may have lived side by side with extinct Late Ice Age mammals near Vero Beach, Fla., as many as 19,000 years ago — about 3,000 years before people were proved to live at Meadowcroft, say archaeologists from Mercyhurst University in Erie, who have excavated both sites.

Florida’s then-state archaeologist suggested the age of the Vero Beach site nearly a century ago. He was widely disbelieved for decades.

“For a long time, the theory was that humans had not been in North or South America before the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. People really were wedded to a notion of recent arrival of Native Americans,” said James Adovasio, Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute’s director. “We now know that people were here well before that.”

Adovasio excavated Meadowcroft, in Avella, 42 years ago. He started the Vero excavation last year at the invitation of the Old Vero Ice Age Sites Committee, a citizens group that wants to define Vero’s place in the archaeological record.

Human remains were not found in the dig’s first round, yet certain artifacts identified during the excavation — including burned fragments of bone with cut marks — could only be the work of human beings, Adovasio said.

Workers with the Indian River Farms Co. digging a canal in 1913 found human skeletal remains near Vero Beach, along with skeletons of extinct mammoths, mastodons, giant saber-tooth tigers and bear-sized sloths.

State geologist Dr. E.H. Sellards examined the bones, and Adovasio said he correctly estimated the age of the site.

“It’s taken more than 100 years, but we now know that Sellards was right,” he said.

Today’s rigorous excavation protocols and new technology enabled investigators to proceed with a precise understanding of the site’s geology — an advantage Sellards did not have, Adovasio said.

Would Meadowcroft’s status as a tourist destination be diminished if it lost claim to be the continent’s oldest settlement?

“Not at all. It is a major asset. It’s a National Historic Landmark,” said Dave Scofield, Meadowcroft’s director.

Meadowcroft’s age was controversial when verified by carbon testing four decades ago, Scofield said.

“The predominant thought in the 1970s was that the Clovis cultures were the oldest. When radio carbon dates from the Smithsonian showed its age, it was very controversial,” Scofield said.

Clovis settlements are named for the New Mexico town where prehistoric sites were found. They are about 11,500 years old.

Scofield thinks the Vero Beach site will be less controversial.

“The archeological community has moved beyond that debate,” he said.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or [email protected].

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