Thursday, March 9, 2017

From Vilified to Vindicated: the Story of Jacques Cinq-Mars

While excavating at Bluefish Caves in northern Yukon during the 1970s and 1980s, Canadian archaeologist Cinq-Mars found cut-marked horse bones and other traces of human hunters that seemed to date to 24,000 years ago—thousands of years before the Clovis people. Photo by Ruth Gotthardt

















Heather Pringle
Hakai Magazine   
Published March 7, 2017
(Link)

"What I remember most about Jacques Cinq-Mars the first time we met was his manner—one part defiance, one part wariness. It was 1994, and I had just flown into the small village of Old Crow in northern Yukon; Cinq-Mars was waiting in the tiny airport. Tall, grizzled, and unshaven, the French-Canadian archaeologist looked every bit the old Yukon hand. Still fit in his early 50s, he worked as a curator at what is now called the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. But Cinq-Mars lived for summer fieldwork, combing Yukon riverbanks and rock shelters for traces of Ice Age hunters. In three hollows known as the Bluefish Caves, he and his team had discovered something remarkable—the bones of extinct horses and wooly mammoths bearing what seemed to be marks from human butchering and toolmaking. Radiocarbon test results dated the oldest finds to around 24,000 years before the present.

"Bluefish Caves directly challenged mainstream scientific thinking. Evidence had long suggested that humans first reached the Americas around 13,000 years ago, when Asian hunters crossed a now submerged landmass known as Beringia, which joined Siberia to Alaska and Yukon during the last ice age. From there, the migrants seemed to have hurried southward along the edges of melting ice sheets to warmer lands in what is now the United States, where they and their descendants thrived. Researchers called these southern hunters the Clovis people, after a distinctive type of spear point they carried. And the story of their arrival in the New World became known as the Clovis first model.

"Cinq-Mars, however, didn’t buy that story—not a bit. His work at Bluefish Caves suggested that Asian hunters roamed northern Yukon at least 11,000 years before the arrival of the Clovis people. And other research projects lent some support to the idea. At a small scattering of sites, from Meadowcroft in Pennsylvania to Monte Verde in Chile, archaeologists had unearthed hearths, stone tools, and butchered animal remains that pointed to an earlier migration to the Americas. But rather than launching a major new search for more early evidence, the finds stirred fierce opposition and a bitter debate, “one of the most acrimonious—and unfruitful—in all of science,” noted the journal Nature. Cinq-Mars, however, was not intimidated. He fearlessly waded into the fight. Between 1979 and 2001, he published a series of studies on Bluefish Caves.

"It was a brutal experience, something that Cinq-Mars once likened to the Spanish Inquisition. At conferences, audiences paid little heed to his presentations, giving short shrift to the evidence. Other researchers listened politely, then questioned his competence. The result was always the same. “When Jacques proposed [that Bluefish Caves was] 24,000, it was not accepted,” says William Josie, director of natural resources at the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow. In his office at the Canadian Museum of History, Cinq-Mars fumed at the wall of closed minds. Funding for his Bluefish work grew scarce: his fieldwork eventually sputtered and died.

"Today, decades later, the Clovis first model has collapsed. Based on dozens of new studies, we now know that pre-Clovis people slaughtered mastodons in Washington State, dined on desert parsley in Oregon, made all-purpose stone tools that were the Ice Age version of X-acto blades in Texas, and slept in sprawling, hide-covered homes in Chile—all between 13,800 and 15,500 years ago, possibly earlier. And in January, a Université de Montréal PhD candidate, Lauriane Bourgeon, and her colleagues published a new study on Bluefish Caves bones in the journal PLOS One, confirming that humans had butchered horses and other animals there 24,000 years ago. “It was a huge surprise,” says Bourgeon.

"The new findings, says Quentin Mackie, an archaeologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia who was not a member of the team, are prompting the first serious discussion of Bluefish Caves—nearly 40 years after its excavation. “This report will tilt the scales for some [archaeologists] towards accepting the site, and for some more, it will inspire a desire to really evaluate the caves more seriously and either generate new data or try to replicate this study,” Mackie notes.

"But the study also raises serious questions about the effect of the bitter decades-long debate over the peopling of the New World. Did archaeologists in the mainstream marginalize dissenting voices on this key issue? And if so, what was the impact on North American archaeology? Did the intense criticism of pre-Clovis sites produce a chilling effect, stifling new ideas and hobbling the search for early sites? Tom Dillehay, an archaeologist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and the principal investigator at the Chilean site of Monte Verde, thinks the answer is clear. The scientific atmosphere, recalls Dillehay, was “clearly toxic and clearly impeded science.”

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