The first, big-game-hunting humans to live in Rim Country and throughout the Southwest may have arrived much sooner than experts thought.

Moreover, the new discovery in Texas pushes back the arrival of the first, spear-point-making, mammoth and sloth hunting people in the region to as much as 20,000 years.

That’s 2,500 to 6,500 years sooner than commonly assumed, based on previous finds of the distinctive tools of these big-game hunters.

The new findings suggest perhaps a well-developed Ice Age hunting culture dominated the area even before the better-known “Clovis” culture, whose artifacts have been discovered in Rim Country and the Verde Valley as well as southeast Arizona.

The new, finely-crafted spear points found in Texas are different from the surprisingly uniform Clovis points and date back 16,000 to 20,000 years, according to research published in Science Advances and on the Science Daily website.

That’s at least 2,500 years older than the most reliably dated Clovis spear points.

Tonto National Monument archaeologists have discovered the distinctive Clovis spear points in several places inside the monument, which preserves two, other much younger cliff dwellings. The cliff dwellings in the monument date back to roughly the 1300s, thousands of years after the Clovis people and the camels, sloths, mammoths, and giant bison they hunted had vanished.

The findings mark another piece of evidence in a long-standing debate about when humans first moved into North America from Siberia — moving down along the coast of Alaska and Canada.

Conventional wisdom suggests the Clovis people were the first modern humans to spread into North and South America, spreading out across the continent during a break between Ice Ages some 13,500 years ago. They made precisely flaked spearheads with fluted grooves to keep the spearhead from breaking if it hit something hard like bone. Scientists have long argued the Clovis hunters took advantage of a warm period between Ice Ages and moved across a land bridge linking Alaska and Siberia.

They stopped making their distinctive spear points some 12,000 years ago as the last Ice Age waned. Their sophisticated hunting techniques may have contributed to the disappearance of the giant mammals of the Ice Age. In any case, they abandoned their spear points — and either died out themselves or gave rise to the other cultures that flourished in the next 12,000 years, including the people who built the ruins now preserved in Tonto National Monument.

But other finds have begun to challenge the idea that the Clovis people were the first — or the only — people to make the difficult migration from Asia to North America.

A variety of sites in Florida, South America and elsewhere have prompted some experts to suggest other people arrived thousands of years before the Clovis hunters.

Some controversial research cites evidence of hominids and tool use in South America going back 130,000, although no one has found bones or skeletons that old. Researchers have long concluded that distant ancestors of modern humans began using tools some 3.3 million years ago in Africa. Several of those earlier upright-walking hominids spread across the globe. However, anatomically modern humans didn’t spread out of Africa until about 100,000 years ago, according to fossil and genetic evidence. They spread throughout the world in the next 70,000 years. The other hominids either died out before modern humans arrived, lost out to the newcomers or perhaps interbred in some cases.

But that precise timing of the arrival of modern humans in the Americas remains subject to vigorous scientific debate. The Clovis people who clearly moved through Rim Country apparently arrived some 13,000 years ago. However, the fragmentary evidence of other, earlier cultures continues to spur debate.

The Gault site in Texas therefore plunks down a new set or earlier dates and theories into the middle of a vigorous scientific debate.

Texas State University lead author Tom Williams said the site shows evidence of continuous human occupation stretching back perhaps 20,000 years. The site includes Clovis points and technology in well-dated sediments consistent with the conventional view of those stone-age hunters.

However, in layers beneath the Clovis artifacts researchers found very different artifacts and spear points, suggesting an earlier culture. The scientists used a process called optically simulated luminescence (OSL) to date the layers in which they found the buried artifacts. This technique causes minerals to release potassium, uranium and thorium electrons that emit light in a way that makes it possible when the materials were last exposed to sunlight.

So the latest finding provides intriguing evidence that people have lived in Payson and the Tonto Basin thousands of years longer than the experts have assumed.

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