More than 13,000 years ago, South Carolina was a wild kingdom alive with all sorts of beasts: saber-tooth tigers, beavers the size of Great Danes, camels, elephants and mastodons.
Until recently, these animals were believed to have vanished before the first Americans -- called the Clovis people -- arrived about 13,000 years ago from Asia via the Bering Sea land bridge.
That view may soon change.
An archaeological dig currently under way at the Topper Site in Allendale County is one of a handful of excavations across the country where evidence is being uncovered that could rewrite America's history.
For the past 10 years, University of South Carolina archaeologist Dr. Albert Goodyear has been digging up artifacts that indicate humans lived here 37,000 years before the Clovis people arrived. His is a controversial theory he tries to prove each time he dusts off a rock or stone tool fragment.
What he's finding at Topper is strengthening his argument. The artifacts Goodyear has uncovered are the oldest carbon-dated relics ever found in North America, at 50,000 and 51,000 years old.
This week, Goodyear is finishing his 11th dig at Topper. Digs are held each May.
Goodyear believes the work is slowly uncovering the truth about America's history as he continues to dig just a little deeper. Among those helping at the site are volunteers from Hilton Head Island.
The artifacts he finds this years will be analyzed in Columbia at the University of South Carolina.
There's still more site work to be done, though. He plans to be back at Topper this time next year.
In 1998 -- thanks to Beaufort County resident David Topper -- Goodyear found pre-Clovis artifacts at an ancient rock quarry in the woods that shade the Savannah River in western Allendale County. Goodyear named the site, just a few miles south of a tiny town called Martin, "Topper" after the resident who found it.
Since the 1980s, Goodyear had been digging at a place called the Big Pine Tree, a nearby site since claimed by a flood that sent Goodyear and his team searching for higher ground. That's when he came to Topper, a site he was aware of but didn't think would yield important artifacts.
"It's the best thing that ever happened to me," he said.
Topper is now a pit 12-feet deep where volunteers dig in what's called the "Pleistocene Terrace," named for the time period that spanned from 1.8 million years ago to 10,000 years ago. The hard clay dirt is in layers and must be sprayed with water and scraped away every five centimeters.
It's tedious work that usually yields little.
Goodyear said plant remains found in the pit have been carbon-dated to between 50,000 and 51,000 years ago. Stones called "cores" -- rock altered by human hands -- were also found at the same level. These rocks were used to make tools as sharp as glass for pointed spear-like blades or chisels -- some of which were also found.
"It's very slow digging," Goodyear said. "It's very hard digging, but it's very important we get definitive cases of pre-Clovis."
DUSTING OFF THE PROOF
For Jean Guilleux, a Hilton Head resident and a native of France, the possibility of finding an ancient artifact lead to a decision to volunteer at Topper in 2002. He has returned for every dig since, and spent five weeks on site this year.
Matthew Carey, also of Hilton Head, is a 22-year-old senior at USC majoring in anthropology. Aside from digging, he's been helping map the artifacts with surveying equipment used to reconstruct the site as a computer model.
"I think it'd be pretty neat if he's right," Carey said of Goodyear's theory. "It's refreshing to know there is something new to be discovered."
Carey admits more evidence must be found to prove the theory is legitimate.
Guilleux agrees and hopes he can add to the artifact count.
"To find something man-made, that is the most exciting thing," Guilleux said. "So regardless of the place, (the question is) who were they 50,000 years ago to live here? What did they look like?"
Goodyear is trying to literally piece together that history.
In 2004, he began working on the rocky hillside of Topper at what he calls the "Clovis dig."
This year he returned to the Big Pine Tree site for an underwater excavation done with dredging equipment and divers. They found a prehistoric clay pipe with a human face engraved on it.
The "Clovis dig" has uncovered tens of thousands of stone chips, scraping tools and flakes of stone blades. Since Goodyear believes the area was a manufacturing site for the first American tools, archaeologists and volunteers only expect to find "mistakes," castoff equipment that didn't make the cut. The functional tools would have been taken off-site and used.
"There were probably families spending several days and weeks camping and working on their tools," Goodyear said. "We don't think they lived here permanently."
On Wednesday, Goodyear's team dusted off a Piedmont rock, native to North Carolina's landscape and inconsistent with South Carolina coastal plain stone. He said someone would have had to bring it to the area. The find shows that Clovis people in South Carolina probably communicated with people in adjacent areas, Goodyear said.
"We want to know about their world," he said. "Yes, this is a factory, a quarry, but there is more to their lives than just beating on rocks, even though that's basically all that survives."
AN EXTRATERRESTRIAL CHANGE
There is cosmic evidence that could add proof to Goodyear's theory.
For four years, Arizona geophysicist Dr. Allen West has been working on a comet theory, which was published in the National Academy of Sciences last year.
Topper is connected to the theory which says a comet exploded over the continent about 12,900 years ago, wiping out mammoths and mastodons, killing the first North Americans and triggering a new Ice Age.
West first developed the theory at Gainey, Mich., another Clovis site, where he found microscopic balls that fell off of the comet. This material rarely exists on Earth and is usually produced by a meteorite or shooting star. West said that generally speaking, only one of these microscopic balls will fall a year.
In Gainey, he found 56,000 of them.
That got him thinking that an extraterrestrial event could have occurred. He began examining other Clovis sites. He's found similar materials in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Canada, off the coast of California and at Topper.
"One of the oddest things... we found that the burned 'spherals' (at Topper) seem to be made out of tree sap," West said. "So we figure when a comet came through, it set fire to a clear amount of the landscape and they (the spherals) formed when the trees were burning. We looked at them with powerful, million-dollar microscopes and they are loaded with diamonds."
While West said he's tempted to sell them on eBay, the diamonds are smaller than a bacteria and invisible without the expensive microscopes. They formed, he said, when the comet shot through Earth's atmosphere, causing dramatic climate and pressure change.
West believes the comet landed in fragments across the United States and wiped out much of human and animal life, either through the impactor the subsequent change in climate and temperature. Large animals likely starved to death, West said.
While the loss of life was massive, some creatures, including humans, survived.
"It's been a real mystery as to why this thing suddenly occurred when the Ice Age appeared to be over," he said. "We had never seen it in previous glacial cycles. It happened at a time when things should have been getting warmer."
After the comet catastrophe, West said the Clovis culture collapsed. Goodyear's work appears to back that assertion up: Few Clovis artifacts are found after that point.
West returned to Topper last week to collect more sediment samples for analysis.
"I'm taking Clovis artifacts, lifting those up one at a time and scooping out sediment below it to see if there are any spherals," West said.
A chemical analysis should tell him whether it's likely the spherals came from outer space or formed on Earth.
"Except for this event, we might have looked out in these woods and seen a saber-tooth tiger or giant beaver or mammoth running through" them, he said.