Pondering Life in California 130,000 Years Ago
Credit Tom Deméré/San Diego Natural History Museum
California, cradle of the first freeways, skateboards, canned tuna fish ... Americans?
A study published by the journal Nature on Wednesday made a startling claim: Turns out prehistoric humans may have arrived in what is now California 130,000 years ago.
The finding, based on examination of mastodon bones found near San Diego, would upend our understanding of the arrival of people in the Americas. Currently, the earliest widely accepted evidence of settlement is less than 15,000 years old.
Carl Zimmer, a science writer, explained the new study in The Times. We caught up with him via email.
Q. How big is this?
A. If it turned out to be true, it would be a very big deal, pushing back human occupation in the Americas over 100,000 years. But that’s a very, very big “if,” based on my interviews with other experts.
Q. You reported that there’s quite a bit of skepticism. What should we make of that?
A. This is part of the scientific process. Scientists develop a hypothesis to explain evidence and test it, and then it’s up to other researchers to challenge its premises and find ways to test it for themselves. This particular case reveals how the standards of proof can go up when the stakes go up. If people want to make a big claim, other scientists are going to expect a lot of evidence to back it up. Experts I spoke to thought that evidence fell short in this case.
Q. What would life in California have been like 130,000 years ago?
A. It would be pretty nice. The weather would be comfortable, and there would be lots of grass and trees. The area was home to many big animals, including camels, giant ground sloths and dire wolves (sort of like the ones in Game of Thrones).
Q. Suppose it’s right, could modern Californians be related?
A. It’s very hard to see how any humans in California 130,000 years ago could be the ancestors of any living humans. But there were a number of other lineages of humans, such as Neanderthals, that existed in that age. They’d be more likely candidates.
photo: National Geographic