The Magazine of South Carolina

The Allendale Dig

Archaeological Finds in Allendale County May Alter Our Understanding of History


The deep excavation unit in the Topper site's pleistocene terrace

Excavator Kenn Steffy takes a measurement

Artifact identified as a possible microblade

Albert C. Goodyear showing early tools to visiting scientists

Goodyear examines soil at the excavation

Ancient burin spall

by Randy L. Akers, Ph.D.

As most South Carolinians focus expectantly on an unknown millennium, a group of dedicated archaeological professionals and volunteers working near Allendale have proven that discovery of an unknown past can be just as exciting—and even as controversial. The goal of the Paleoindian Expedition, sponsored by the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, is to explore the ancient campsites and quarries of the earliest human beings to live in South Carolina. In the process, USC archaeologist Albert Goodyear and a team of volunteers have uncovered evidence of an Ice Age civilization that may force scholars to rewrite American history.

The standard textbook story is that humans first settled the Americas when Arctic-adapted peoples, following big game, crossed a land bridge where the Bering Strait today separates Alaska from Siberia. Traversing an ice-free corridor that opened through the glaciers just east of the Canadian Rockies about 12,000 years ago, these Paleoindians split into small groups and developed new cultures as they went. Bearing large families and supported by the resources before them, they spread out across the Great Plains, into the Southwest and eventually the East. In addition, these hunter-gatherers migrated all the way to the tip of South America over a period of 1,000 years or so. These peoples would have been the ancestors of nearly all of today’s Native Americans.

Evidence of this Ice Age migration was found in the 1920s at a Clovis, NM, site dated to about 11,200 (radiocarbon) years ago. Distinctive long spearheads called Clovis points were discovered, along with shattered bones of bison and mammoths. These bones were the first proof that people had arrived in time to see and to kill the last great beasts of the Ice Age. The Clovis points bear grooves or "flutes" carved in their bases where they attached to wooden shafts.

Hundreds of Clovis sites have been identified throughout North America, implying that wherever the hunters came from, their culture exploded across the landscape with astonishing rapidity.

But intriguing evidence is emerging that suggests people may have gotten here thousands of years earlier. This would have involved multiple migrations from different geographical regions by people of different ethnic origins. Recent finds in Monteverde, Chile, Virginia and Pennsylvania have given rise to new hypotheses about early occupations, including the idea that Ice Age ancestors of modern Europeans crossed the Atlantic ocean in kayaks to settle on the East Coast.

Dennis Stanford, chairman of the Anthropology Department at the Smithsonian Institution, says, "The bottom line is that people could have reached here a long, long time ago." Stanford is among those advancing the belief that the first North Americans did not walk over in one main migration, but came earlier—some by boat. The Clovis people were real, but they may not have been first in the New World.

In this quest to find the first Americans and where they came from, national attention has turned in the past two years to Allendale County. Excavations have revealed apparently pre-Clovis artifacts at the Topper site near Allendale. Albert Goodyear was surveying chert sources in 1981 when a local man named Topper led him to the site, a prehistoric quarry near the tiny town of Martin. Testing in 1985-86 revealed large Clovis-era tools made of a local flint called chert; side-notched points, 70-80 centimeters down; and fluted blanks from which Clovis spearpoints could be made at 80-100 centimeters. Later excavations never went deeper because no site then was accepted as older than Clovis (10,800-11,200 radiocarbon years).

In 1998, inspired by findings in potential pre-Clovis sites like Monteverde, Chile, and Cactus Hill, VA, Goodyear decided to dig deeper. By observing the topography of the site—located at the bottom of a sandy hill—Goodyear reasoned that sand runoff might have buried older artifacts. South Carolina, he thought, would have been a good place to live during the Ice Age, since the glaciers that extended into North America did not reach this state. After some 40 centimeters of barren deposits, and below Clovis levels, the excavators began finding tiny tools unlike anything Goodyear had seen in his 30-year career. Much smaller than the tools typically used by Clovis people, the microblades, small flakes and other artifacts were found at depths of six to nine feet. The lower level, exposed over 28 square meters, yielded some 1,000 waste flakes, 15 microtools (mostly microblades) and a pile of 20 chert pebbles, plus 4 possible quartz pebble hammerstones. These worked stones, with worn edges and flaked surfaces, probably were used to work wood or remove animal hide.

Based on the Paleoindian nature of the artifacts above, and the geological layers below, Goodyear estimates the chert pebbles were worked at the Topper site sometime between 12,000 and 18,000 years ago.

Initial attempts to radiocarbon-date the artifacts failed because of contamination from modern charcoal in the soil. Last May, a team of scientists from Texas A&M, Florida State University, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service arrived onsite for a two-day visit. New samples were taken to a lab in Boulder, CO, for analysis. A new dating technique called thermoluminescence will be used there, along with stratigraphy and comparison with other sites, to help scientists determine how old the artifacts are, what kinds of tools they were making, and how those fit with other cultures known at that time period.

Goodyear’s team caused further excitement last spring when they uncovered evidence of what may be the oldest structure ever found in North America. Though too soon to tell, dark brown stains found in the moist yellow sand may have been post holes of a pre-Clovis structure. If post holes, the structure could have been built between 13,000 and 17,000 years ago.

Of course, the stains could be simply the remains of tree roots or upper-layer soils that have fallen through holes dug by animals. But chert flakes found in a cluster, as if dropped together, and found next to the dark stains, suggest some small hut or shelter. The five stains are about the size of a coaster and are clearly visible in the soil at the bottom of the deep pit. They are arranged in what appears to be a half circle. Subsequent excavations in an adjacent square, however, did not reveal other stains forming a circle or oval, as might be expected in a walled hut. So it will take time and further analysis before scientists can conclusively identify and date the artifacts.

Why all the fuss and excitement in Allendale County? Because scientists are increasingly changing their minds on who the first Americans were. The emerging answer suggests they were not Asians of Mongoloid stock who crossed the land bridge into Alaska 11,500 years ago, as textbooks say. Rather, they may have been from places very different from where scientists thought only a few years ago. Cranial profiles of dozens of Stone Age American skeletons (resembling eastern and southern Asians and Ice-Age Europeans), plus some stone tools, hearths and remains of dwellings unearthed from Peru to South Carolina, suggest Stone Age America was a pretty crowded place for a land that was supposed to be empty until those Asians came from Siberia into Alaska.

What may surprise many is the fact that the oldest stone tools in America are being found in sites on the Eastern Seaboard—Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina—rather than the Southwest. Given the possibility of boat travel, as Stanford and others have proposed (navigation along the ice sheet and seasonal pack ice that spanned the ocean from England to Nova Scotia), scholars may have to turn eastward to places like France and the Iberian Peninsula to find similarities in stone tools and prehistoric cultures.

As the dig in Allendale County progresses, it may be that the finds there will necessitate rewriting the textbooks on the first Americans. The peopling of America was never as simple as the early paradigms suggested. Long before a Mayflower or Santa Maria or Viking ships, this unknown continent lured men and women with no more technological sophistication than sharp rocks to brave Siberian tundra and Atlantic ice packs to get here.

America appears to be older than we thought. And it was—even millennia ago—the world’s melting pot.

Randy L. Akers, Ph.D., is executive director of the South Carolina Humanities Council.

To find out more about this important archaeological site, or to volunteer to dig in 2000 in Allendale County, please contact: Allendale Paleoindian Expedition of the USC Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1321 Pendleton St., Columbia, SC 29208-0071; phone (803) 777-8170; e-mail:


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