Early Humans in the Americas Project
When did humans first arrive in the Americas? This has been one
of the most controversial questions in American archaeology for
more than a century.
"It's important in understanding human adaptability and mobility
throughout the world," Dr. Steven Holen said, "And it's our
species. Many people are interested because it's our
The Denver Museum of Nature & Science made its first major
contribution to the debate in 1927 with discoveries in Folsom, New
Mexico. Artifacts and fossils from the Folsom Site proved that
humans were in the Americas more than 12,000 years ago-thousands of
years earlier than scientists previously thought. In 1933,
discoveries at the Dent Site in Colorado proved that humans were in
the Americas 13,000 years ago. Dr. Holen continues Museum research
on the subject through the Early Humans in the Americas
As Dr. Holen describes it, the project is "two-pronged." The first
component involves field research throughout the central Great
Plains. Dr. Holen and his team conduct pedestrian surveys of
possible dig locations, followed by excavations of late Pleistocene
sites on private, state and federal land.
"We're continually surprised at the age of some of these sites,"
Dr. Holen said, referring to sites that suggest humans entered this
area between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. "We keep finding older
and older sites."
The second part of the project involves the evaluation of museum
collections across North America. According to Dr. Holen, his team
looks for evidence that was excavated previously, but overlooked by
the original excavator. From Canada to Mexico, museums have been
very receptive of the team's research.
"They're good scientists, and they want to know what's in their
collections," Dr. Holen said, "It helps them as much as it helps
Working with his wife, Kathe Holen-Anthropology Department
Associate at the Museum-Dr. Holen has used experimental methods to
show that mammoth bones from the latest Pleistocene (40,000 to
13,000 years ago) were modified by humans. "We were able to
replicate fracture patterns found on mammoth bone by using a stone
hammer to break and flake elephant bones," Dr. Holen said, "The
fact that we can eliminate natural causes for the observed breakage
of mammoth bone strengthens the argument that only humans were
capable of breaking bones in these patterns."