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Chapter 1 provides an overview of the Ice Age in North America. It covers the issues and controversies surrounding the Ice Age peopling of the continent, and introduces the volume chapters and key dating methods with which archaeologists can tell time. It then provides a summary overview of human evolutionary history in order to bring people to Northeast Asia, their jumping-off point for the move into the Americas.
Chapter 8 provides a detailed look at the Clovis complex, the earliest, most widespread occupation in the Americas, exploring Clovis adaptations to a highly varied landscape and one changing rapidly as the Ice Age waned. It focuses on the possible role of Clovis hunters in one of the most perplexing whodunits of science: the extinction of some thirty-eight different genera of Ice Age giant mammals from mammoth and mastodon, to saber-toothed cats.
Chapter 7 turns to the question of how, having made it to the Americas, the first people spread with what appears to be archaeologically breathtaking speed across a continent about which they knew nothing of its climate, resources, or routes. Although highly skilled hunter-gatherers, how did the first people learn to adapt to this utterly unknown land, and do so as successfully as they did?
Chapter 6 seeks to bring together the various threads from previous chapters on glacial geology, archaeology, linguistics, anatomy and genetics to synthesize what we know of who the first peoples were, where they came from and when, and how they travelled to the continent. More broadly, it examines the degree to which there is (or ought to be) convergence among these very different lines of evidence.
Chapter 2 sets the Ice Age (Pleistocene) environmental stage for the peopling of the Americas. It provides a history of glaciation in North America, and the consequences of the Ice Age for the continent’s land, plants and animals, on the routes that may have been used and when by the first peoples. It covers the climate changes over time that would have impacted people and their environment, including the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna.
Chapter 4 picks up the thread of controversy, starting in the 1960s, when archaeologists sought evidence people that were present in pre-Clovis times. It explores disputes over sites such as Meadowcroft and Pedra Furada, and the resolution of controversy at Monte Verde. But with resolution came more questions about how people reached the Americas, why so few sites of pre-Clovis age have been found, and where we stand today on the question of a deep human antiquity in the Americas.
Chapter 5 brings non-archaeological evidence to bear on the question of the peopling of the Americas, looking at how Native American languages, dental and skeletal anatomy, and DNA (both ancient and modern) can and have been used to infer the population history of the Americas. It covers debates both within and across these disciplines that surround the use of these different methods, and examines their weaknesses and strengths.
Chapter 10 jumps ahead to the centuries after 1492, to explore how the past is still present, both in its role and importance to contemporary Native Americans, and its influence on legislation for the protection and repatriation of ancient human remains. It also looks at how the peopling of the Americas that unfolded more than 10,000 years earlier made Native Americans especially susceptible to epidemic diseases (such as smallpox) brought by Europeans.
Chapter 9 covers the later Paleoindian period that follows Clovis, when the continent was finally freed from the grip of the Ice Age, and the descendants of the first peoples began to settle in to different regions, adapting to the distinctive resources of those regions (such as bison on the Plains), and drifting apart – a process of diversification that distanced people from one another and their once common ancestors.