An archaeologist who's been digging at the Topper Site in Allendale County for 11 years is uncovering new evidence that could rewrite America's history.
University of South Carolina archaeologist Albert Goodyear found artifacts at this rock quarry site near the Savannah River that indicate humans lived here 37,000 years before the Clovis people. History books say the Clovis were the first Americans and arrived here 13,000 years ago by walking across a land bridge from Asia.
Goodyear's discovery could prove otherwise.
His findings are controversial, opening scientific minds to the possibility of an even earlier pre-Clovis occupation of America.
The site is named for Beaufort County resident David Topper, a forester who led Goodyear to the site in the early 1980s. Goodyear only began intense examination of the site in 1998, after flooding of the Savannah River forced him from a nearby dig, according to several histories of the Topper site.
Goodyear believes it was a factory for the Clovis people, where they came to make tools. He also believes it was used long before the Clovis arrived.
So far, he's found two sets of artifacts at Topper:
• Stone flakes and tools made of flint and chert that date to the Clovis era
• A fire pit containing plant remains that date to at least 50,000 years ago, which suggest man was in South Carolina long before the last ice age.
"The controversy is heightened because that's just about the time, according to old-world archaeologists, when our species were starting to move away from Africa and get into Australia," Goodyear said. "That's true and there's no reason to think it's not. ... But the bottom line is are these artifacts really legitimately associated with 50,000-year old sediments? And, based on our digging, I think the answer is yes."
Goodyear finished his 12th dig at the site earlier this month and said he's found more artifacts there that were "undeniably human made" in the layers of dirt dating to pre-Clovis and Clovis eras.
Dennis Stanford, head of the archaeology division and director of the Paleo-Indian Program at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, visited Topper earlier this month to observe the excavation.
"The Topper site is probably one of the most important sites being excavated in the country today," Stanford said in a news release. "It's a whole new chapter of history unfolding. ... The Smithsonian stands for the acquisition and dispersion of science and knowledge to human communities, and that's exactly what is happening here."
In the pre-Clovis layer, Goodyear found a "core," which is rock altered by human hands that would have been used to quarry or make tools. This year, he also found more flakes and stone chisel-like pieces.
In the Clovis layer, Goodyear found a scraper tool, which he has not seen before among Clovis artifacts. It suggests the people might have been skinning animal hides, which could mean they were living at Topper for a few months at a time, instead of just the few weeks they would need to make tools.
"One scraper doesn't prove anything," he said. "But, we're wondering if there was another set of activities besides quarrying and making artifacts there. We are going to look at that next year. That would make Topper a much more complex site for Clovis."
Goodyear said the artifacts at Topper are "sort of the Clovis library."
"It's what's in their Sears and Roebuck catalogue," he said. "From that tool kit you make inferences about what they are doing there.
"What we are trying to get at is, how do these humans organize themselves across the South Carolina and Georgia landscape?" he said. "As we understand how the tools function and where they distribute, then we are going to be able to say, wow they were much more sedentary than we believed, or they're not and just use quarries to refill their gas tank."
Goodyear said Clovis artifacts have been found as far as 100 miles away.
"We know they are moving," he said. "But the question is, are there places where they're staying for a while? We're just wondering if there might be more to Topper than we know so far based on all of our digging."
The answers to those questions will remain underground until next year's dig.