Dig Deeper: Paradigm Shifts and the Changing Face of North American Archaeology

The year was 1876, and Charles Conrad Abbott was not only well-known among his colleagues in the anthropological community: he also believed he was poised to initiate a paradigm shift, as far as our ideas about the first people to arrive in North America.

Abbott, a naturalist and career surgeon from New Jersey, was one of the first anthropologists to engage in well-documented archaeological fieldwork anywhere in the Delaware Valley. He had been inspired by the controversial discoveries in France’s Somme Valley, where artifacts found in a gravel pit suggested an earlier arrival of humans in Europe than once thought; at least by several thousands of years. Abbott himself had found stone artifacts that were similar to these, produced from a gravel bed he had worked near Trenton, New Jersey. Although the insinuation here hadn’t necessarily been that there were connections to Europe, he nonetheless believed that the artifacts he had discovered might be evidence of humans in North America before the end of the last ice age.
Abbott, as depicted in Popular Science Monthly, circa 1887 (public domain).

It was not a popular idea at the time, and while the anthropological community didn’t overlook Abbott’s claims entirely, they were readily dismissed. Leading the charge against Abbot were famed geologist William Henry Holmes and John Wesley Powell, the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology. Aleš Hrdlička, who later became curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, eventually joined his colleagues in their criticism, based on three well-thought criteria he proposed at the time.

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