The Toca da Tira Peia Site and the End of an Ice Age in American Archaeology

Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013), 2840-2847

Human Occupation in South America by 20,000 BC: The Toca da Tira Peia Site, Piauí, Brazil

Christelle Lahaye, Marion Hernandez, Eric Boëda, Gisele D. Felice, Niède Guidon, Sirlei Hoeltz, Antoine Lourdeau, Marina Pagli, Anne-Marie Pessis, Michel Rasse, Sibeli Viana.

When and how did the first human beings settle in the American continent? Numerous data, from archaeological researches as well as from palaeogenetics, anthropological and environmental studies, have led to partially contradictory interpretations in recent years, often because of the lack of a reliable chronological framework. The present study contributes to the establishment of such a framework using luminescence techniques to date a Brazilian archaeological site, the Toca da Tira Peia. It constitutes an exemplary case study: all our observations and measurements tend to prove the good integrity of the site and the anthropological nature of the artifacts and we are confident in the accuracy of the luminescence dating results. All these points underline the importance of the Toca da Tira Peia. The results bring new pieces of evidence of a human presence in the north-east of Brazil as early as 20,000 BC. The Toca da Tira
Peia thus contributes to the rewriting of the history of the peopling of the American continent.


In 2010, Hamilton & Buchanan in the article “Archaeological Support for the Three-Stage Expansion of Modern Humans across Northeastern Eurasia and into the Americas” wrote

“the distribution of sites, and the boundaries…demonstrate that currently there is no archaeological evidence of human settlements to the east of the extreme western border of Beringia until well after the LGM, ~16k calBP… Assuming the initial expansion out of southern Siberia occurred ~45k calBP a pre-LGM colonization of the Americas would require a continuous expansion process with no pause along the western boundary of Beringia. The velocity of this expansion would have to be twice as fast as the empirical gradient shown in panel A and sites throughout Beringia would have to be at least twice as old as the current archaeological record indicates. A pre-LGM colonization would also require the extensive human occupation of Beringia during the extreme cold, hyper-arid conditions of much of MIS 2. Although there are only a handful of dated Upper Paleolithic sites throughout western and central Beringia, a pre-LGM colonization of the Americas would require a radical reformulation of the Eurasian Upper Paleolithic archaeological record as it currently stands.”

Lahaye et al. (2013) published a paper that does precisely that – it demands a radical reformulation not just of the Paleoindian archaeological record but of the Eurasian Upper Paleolithic archaeological record as well. The Toca da Tira Peia rockshelter in Brazil (originally discovered in 2008) has yielded 113 knapped artifacts from 4 perfectly preserved layers dated from 4,000 to 22,000 YBP by luminescence techniques. The anthropogenic origin of the lithic artifacts is beyond doubt (see Fig. 5 below), the dating method is top of the line and is widely used to date artifacts in the Old World, and the oldest dates are some 10,000 years older than Clovis.

Anthropogenesis-Lahaye-1Anthropogenesis-Lahaye-2 Anthropogenesis-Lahaye-3

Lahaye et al. (2013) map out the current distribution of confirmed and potential archaeological sites in South America (see below, Fig. 1 and 2). The usual thick curve starts thinning out at the Clovis threshold indicating that some fundamental demographic changes did occur in the New World at the end of the Ice Age and the frequency of sites correspondingly increased, but the pre-Clovis presence is undoubtedly there and it is deep.


It will take a while for archaeologists to circumscribe the emerging pre-Clovis lithic and cultural pattern in North and South America. It will take them even longer to trace it back to the Old World. Once they build another theory of the colonization of the Americas and spend a couple of decades mocking and suppressing all the attempts to find something even older in the New World, a new paradigm of human antiquity in the New World based on a set of even earlier sites will surely emerge.

Scientists should stop trying to offer answers to the ontological questions of whether humans were or weren’t in the New World on the basis of a fragmentary archaeological record, but instead embrace a thoroughly empirical stance of searching for older and older sites in the New World, while practicing good archaeology. Geneticists who use the archaeological record as a calibration scale for the molecular clock should be reminded that the former is a moving target. Hopefully the epistemological Ice Age in American archaeology is over and the Fiedels of the world are a thing of the past. (The tireless warrior against crackpottery, Stuart Fiedel, has turned into a crackpot himself when he suggested that the Toca da Tira Peia tools were made by capuchin monkeys.) The great antiquity of human presence in the Americas was correctly predicted by such non-antiquarian disciplines as synchronic linguistics (see Nichols, Johanna. “Linguistic Diversity and the First Settlement of the New World,” Language 66: 475-521) and kinship studies (Dziebel, German V. The Genius of Kinship. Youngstown: Cambria Press, 2007), which suggests that only a holistic, cross-disciplinary approach to human origins can result in accurate reconstructions of deep human history.