Cactus Hill (USA) - Possible Preclovis Site in Virginia

Does Virginia's Cactus Hill Site Hold Credible Evidence for PreClovis?

Nottoway River, Near Courtland, Virginia
Nottoway River, Near Courtland, Virginia. Kubigula

Cactus Hill (44SX202) is a buried multicomponent site on the coastal plain of the Nottaway River in Sussex County, Virginia. The site has Archaic and Clovis occupations, but most importantly and controversially, below the Clovis and separated by what appears to be a level of sterile sand, is what excavators argue is a Pre-Clovis occupation.

Data from the Site

Excavators report that the preclovis level has a stone tool assemblage with heavy percentages of quartzite blades, and pentangular (five-sided) projectile points.

Data on the artifacts has yet to be published in detailed peer-reviewed contexts, but even skeptics agree the assemblage includes small polyhedral cores, blade-like flakes, and basally thinned bifacial points.

Radiocarbon dates on wood from the preclovis level range between 15,070±70 and 18,250±80 RCYBP, calibrated to ca. 18,200-22,000 years ago. Luminescence dates taken on feldspar and quartzite grains in the various levels of the site agree, with some exceptions, with the radiocarbon assays. The luminescence dates suggest that the site stratigraphy is primarily intact and has been little affected by movement of artifacts down through the sterile sand; but some doubt remains.

Seeking the Perfect Pre-Clovis Site

Cactus Hill is still fairly controversial. The "pre-clovis" occupation was not stratigraphically sealed and artifacts were assigned to pre-clovis levels based on their relative elevation in an environment of sand, where bioturbation by animals and insects can easily move artifacts up and down in a profile (see Bocek 1992 for a discussion).

Further, some of the luminescence dates on the pre-clovis level ranged as young as 10,600 to 10,200 years ago. No features were identified: and, it must be said that the site is just not a perfect context.

However, other, credible pre-clovis sites continue to be identified, and Cactus Hill's shortcomings may be of less significance.

Multiple instances of fairly secure preclovis sites in North and South America, particularly in the Pacific northwest and along the Pacific coast, have made these issues seem less compelling. Further, the Blueberry Hill site in the Nottoway River valley (see Johnson 2012) also reportedly contains cultural levels stratigraphically below Clovis-period occupations.

Cactus Hill and Politics: An Opinion

Cactus Hill isn't a perfect example of a pre-clovis site. Even if you accept the presence of pre-clovis in North America, which in late 2015 you must, the dates are pretty early for an east-coast presence. However, the context for the Clovis and Archaic sites also in the sand sheet would be similarly imperfect, except that Clovis and American Archaic occupations are firmly accepted in the region and so no one questions their reality.

The arguments concerning when and how people arrived in the Americas are likely to continue for some time to come. Cactus Hill's status remains one of those questions yet to be resolved.

Sources

This glossary entry is part of the About.com Guide to Populating America and Preclovis Culture, not to mention the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Feathers JK, Rhodes EJ, Huot S, and MJM.

2006. Luminescence dating of sand deposits related to late Pleistocene human occupation at the Cactus Hill Site, Virginia, USA. Quaternary Geochronology 1(3):167-187.

Goebel T. 2013. ARCHAEOLOGICAL RECORDS | Global Expansion 300 000–8000 Years Ago, Americas. In: Mock SAEJ, editor. Encyclopedia of Quaternary Science (Second Edition). Amsterdam: Elsevier. p 119-134.

Goebel T, Waters MR, and O’Rourke DH. 2008. The Late Pleistocene Dispersal of Modern Humans in the Americas. Science 319:1497-1502.

Johnson MF. 2012. Cactus Hill, Rubis-Pearsall and Blueberry Hill: one is an accident; two is a coincidence; three is a pattern – predicting "old dirt" in the Nottoway river valley of Southeastern Virginia, U. S. A. Exeter: University of Exeter.

Wagner DP, and McAvoy JM. 2004. Pedoarchaeology of Cactus Hill, a sandy Paleoindian site in southeastern Virginia, U.S.A.

Geoarchaeology 19(4):297-322.