Land of Extremes: Mastodon bones, the Yuha Man, and a reignited debate

The site is named after Richard Cerutti, who is the paleontologist credited for its discovery. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Natural History Museum

A somewhat dormant debate was reignited this week by the San Diego Natural History Museum when it published an article on mastodon bones that it has been investigating for nearly 20 years. With the publishing of a paper in the magazine Nature, the authors have claimed human activity began in San Diego 130,000 years ago. While it is clear other sites need to be located to bolster the findings at the Cerutti Mastodon site, the paper rapidly hit national news this week and has drawn responses from many.

A similar thing happened in late 1970, when Imperial Valley amateur archaeologist Morlin Childers discovered the Yuha Man. An academic splash comparable to that created by these Cerutti mastodon bones occurred when multiple indirect dating methods led to the date of 22,000 years old, doubling the antiquity of the previously accepted Clovis first narrative. Although both Childers and those contesting his finds admitted that more evidence needed to be collected, they went back and forth for half a decade in publications like American Antiquity and Nature.

Ultimately, while the consistency of dates derived from indirect dating methods lent credence to Childers’ position, direct radiocarbon dating available only a decade’s advancement of technology later yielded the much less impressive 2,000 years as the actual age of the Yuha Man.

Even though the Yuha Man turned out to be relatively young, other finds have led to the Clovis first position losing a lot of clout with many archaeologists. The current model with the most support is the Pacific Coastal Migration Theory, where humans sailed along the Bering ice bridge around 16,000 years ago following the Kelp Highway, a coastal agglomeration of kelp that helped support an abundance of marine life.

The Pacific Coastal Migration Theory has been around since 1979, but the addition of the Kelp Highway to it by a paper by Erlandson et. al. in 2007 has caused it to be more and more accepted. It is now the uneasy consensus among archaeologists for the initial peopling of the Americas. Sites in South America like Monte Verde and Quebrada Jaguay predate Clovis and show many signs of marine subsistence.

Cerutti Mastodon site

The extreme age of this mastodon bone, however, would suggest a pre-homo sapiens occupation of the Americas. The earliest modern human fossils found outside of Africa date to about 80,000-100,000 years ago. That would mean that the Pacific Coastal Migration Theory doesn’t have to be modified, since it would still be the most accepted method of homo sapiens entrance to the Americas. The debate is of course, whether modern humans were the first humans in the Americas, something that hasn’t been up for debate for a very long time. The last time this was seriously debated was the findings of stone tools at the Calico Hills site in the 60’s, which now most in the scientific community consider naturally occurring broken stones.

While it is easy to get excited about such a potentially earth shattering discovery, it is important to note that the findings of the Cerutti Mastodon site paper push the envelope so much that a lot more evidence needs to be found. Shocking finds like this are common throughout history, but those that stand up to continual scrutiny or the advancement of technology are few and far between. Hopefully the coming years will shed more light on the find, much as they did with Imperial Valley’s very own Yuha Man. One thing is clear, we live in a fascinating area for fossil discoveries.

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