Topper is an archaeological site located along the Savannah River in Allendale County, South Carolina in the United States. It is noted as the location of controversial artifacts believed by some archaeologists to indicate human habitation of the New World as far back as 50,000 years ago.
Since the 1930s, the prevailing theory concerning the peopling of the New World is that the first human inhabitants were the Clovis people, who are thought to have appeared approximately 13,500 years ago. Artifacts of the Clovis people are found throughout most of the United States and as far south as Panama. The standard theory has been challenged in recent decades with the emergence of pre-Clovis sites such as Monte Verde and other possible pre-Clovis candidates such as Cactus Hill. To date, no consistent pre-Clovis cultural patterns have been established and the accuracy of these claims have been found controversial and unverified.
In 2004, Albert Goodyear of the University of South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology announced that radiocarbon dating of a bit of charcoal found in the Topper Site dated to approximately 50,000 years ago, or approximately 37,000 years before the Clovis people. Goodyear, who began excavating the Topper site in the 1980s, believes that the artifacts are stone tools, although other archaeologists dispute this conclusion, suggesting that the artifacts may be natural and not human-made. Other archaeologists have challenged the radiocarbon dating procedure of the Topper artifacts. Goodyear discovered the artifacts by digging 4 m deeper than the Clovis artifacts. Before discovering the oldest artifacts, he had discovered other artifacts that he claimed were tools dating around 16,000 years old, or about 3,000 years before Clovis. Until the recent challenges to the Clovis theory, it was unusual for archaeologists to dig deeper than the layer of the Clovis culture, on the grounds that no human artifacts would be found older than Clovis.
Radiocarbon tests of carbonized plant remains where artifacts were unearthed and sediments containing these artifacts are at least 50,000 years old, meaning that humans inhabited North American long before the last ice age.
The findings are significant because they suggest that humans inhabited North America well before the last ice age more than 20,000 years ago, a potentially explosive revelation in American archaeology.
Goodyear, who has garnered international attention for his discoveries of tools that pre-date what is believed to be humans’ arrival in North America, announced the test results, which were done by the University of California at Irvine Laboratory, Wednesday (Nov .17).
“The dates could actually be older,” Goodyear says. “Fifty-thousand should be a minimum age since there may be little detectable activity left.”
According to current historical records the dawn of modern homo sapiens occurred in Africa between 60,000 and 80,000 years ago. Evidence of modern man’s migration out of the African continent has been documented in Australia and Central Asia at 50,000 years and in Europe at 40,000 years. The fact that the human race could have been in North America at or near the same time is expected to spark debate among archaeologists worldwide, raising new questions on the origin and migration of the human species.
“Topper is the oldest radiocarbon dated site in North America,” Goodyear says. “However, other early sites in Brazil and Chile, as well as a site in Oklahoma also suggest that humans were in the Western Hemisphere as early as 30,000 years ago to perhaps 60,000.”
In 1998, Goodyear, nationally known for his research on the ice age PaleoIndian cultures dug below the 13,000-year Clovis level at the Topper site and found unusual stone tools up to a meter deeper. The Topper excavation site is on the bank of the Savannah River on property owned by Clariant Corp., a chemical corporation headquartered near Basel, Switzerland. He recovered numerous stone tool artifacts in soils that were later dated by an outside team of geologists to be 16,000 years old.
For five years, Goodyear continued to add artifacts and evidence that a pre-Clovis people existed, slowly eroding the long-held theory by archaeologists that man arrived in North America around 13,000 years ago.
Last May, Goodyear dug even deeper to see whether man’s existence extended further back in time. Using a backhoe and hand excavations, Goodyear’s team dug through the Pleistocene terrace soil, some 4 meters below the ground surface. Goodyear found a number of artifacts similar to the pre-Clovis forms he has excavated in recent years.
Then on the last day of the last week of digging, Goodyear’s team uncovered a black stain in the soil where artifacts lay, providing him the charcoal needed for radiocarbon dating. Dr. Tom Stafford of Stafford Laboratories in Boulder, Colo., came to Topper and collected charcoal samples for dating.
“Three radiocarbon dates were obtained from deep in the terrace at Topper with two dates of 50,300 and 51,700 on burnt plant remains. One modern date related to an intrusion,” Stafford says. “The two 50,000 dates indicate that they are at least 50,300 years. The absolute age is not known.”
The revelation of an even older date for Topper is expected to heighten speculation about when man got to the Western Hemisphere and add to the debate over other pre-Clovis sites in the Eastern United States such as Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania and Cactus Hill in Virginia. As well as others that might likely be discovered as scientist begin searching for new clues.