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First Americans

Clovis people, skeletal anatomy, earliest humans, new territories, descendants

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First Americans, the earliest humans to arrive in the Americas. The first people to come to the Americas arrived in the Western Hemisphere during the late Pleistocene Epoch (1.6 million to 10,000 years before present). Most scholars believe that these ancient ancestors of modern Native Americans were hunter-gatherers who migrated to the Americas from northeastern Asia.

For much of the 20th century it was widely believed the first Americans were the Clovis people, known by their distinctive spearpoints and other tools found across North America. The earliest Clovis sites date to 11,500 years ago. However, recent excavations in South America show that people have lived in the Americas at least 12,500 years. A growing body of evidence—from other archaeological sites to studies of the languages and genetic heritage of Native Americans—suggests the first Americans may have arrived even earlier.

Many of the details concerning the first settlement of the Americas remain shrouded in mystery. Today the search for answers involves researchers from diverse fields, including archaeology, linguistics, skeletal anatomy, and molecular biology. The challenge for researchers is to find evidence that can help determine when the first settlers arrived, how these people made their way into the Americas, and if migrating groups traveled by different routes and in multiple waves. Some archaeologists and physical anthropologists have suggested that one or more of these migrations originated from places outside of Asia, although this view is not widely accepted.

Whoever they were and whenever they arrived, the first Americans faced extraordinary challenges. These hardy settlers encountered a vast, trackless new world, one rich in animals and plants and yet entirely without other peoples. As they entered new territories, they had to locate essential resources, such as water, food, and materials to make or repair their tools. They had to learn which of the unfamiliar animals and plants would feed or cure them and which might hurt or kill them. Their efforts ultimately proved successful. By the time European exploration of the Americas began in the late 15th century, the descendants of these ancient colonizers numbered in the millions.


Bonnichsen, Robson, and Karen L. Turnmire, eds. Ice Age Peoples of North America. Oregon State University Press, 1999. Provides summaries of the latest research into the origin of the First Americans.

Dixon, E. James. Bones, Boats, and Bison: Archeology and the First Colonization of Western North America. University of New Mexico Press, 1999. Attempts to dispel the notion that the Bering land bridge allowed humans to migrate to North America.

Flannery, Tim. The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples. Grove, 2001. A story narrative propels this epic history of the peopling of North America and its consequent development.

Gibbon, Guy E., and Kenneth M. Ames, eds. Archaeology of Prehistoric Native America: An Encyclopedia. 2 vols. Garland, 1998. A solid reference work on North America's native peoples and their arrival on the continent.

Lauber, Patricia. Who Came First? New Clues to Prehistoric Americans. National Geographic, 2003. For readers in grades 5 to 8.


Meltzer, David J., B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Professor of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University. Author of Search for the First Americans.

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Article key phrases:

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