Dr. Michael Waters lives and works more than 2,000 miles from Sequim. And he’s never set foot in this fair city.
But there’s a very good chance he will play a major role in Sequim’s future, particularly in its future as a destination for tourists, and perhaps for history buffs.
Waters, the director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans in the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M, recently joined colleagues from Colorado, Washington and Denmark to determine if the Manis site in Sequim demonstrates that humans were hunting in the Americas around 13,800 years ago.
That’s 800 years earlier than was previously believed.
Their work was published in Science magazine in late October, bringing worldwide attention to the find.
The bone point fragment found embedded in a mastodon rib from the site shows that hunters were present in North America at least 800 years before “Clovis Man,” previously thought to be the earliest hunters in the Americas.
Waters says that “The evidence from the Manis site is helping to reshape our understanding of the earliest inhabitants of the Americas, the last continent to be occupied by modern humans.”
The new research also validated theories put forth by Dr. Carl Gustafson, a now-retired Washington State University archaeologist, when he first researched and excavated the site more than 30 years ago.
Gustafson’s ideas were long denied and the technology wasn’t yet available to provide proof.
Waters said he first heard about the Manis mastodon decades ago, when he was still in graduate school. “It was a site I thought had a pretty good possibility of providing evidence of pre-Clovis Americans,” he said.
“It came out, was challenged and then was put on the shelf — in cold storage, in a way.”
In recent years Waters has enjoyed greater access to opportunities. “I’ve been embarking on a series of investigations into the peopling of the Americas,” he said. As head of the Center for Study of the First Americans, Waters has researched a number of sites, including Clovis, all the while creating what he calls a “hit list — sites that I want to investigate.”
Water said he was particularly interested in revisiting the Manis mastodon because “we had new technologies that weren’t available to Gus (Gustafson).”
Waters said there are older human settlements in the Americas than the Manis site, but it is nevertheless highly significant. “It provides another solid archaeological site that dates older than Clovis and we don’t have too many of those,” he said. “Any site we can bring into the collection is significant.”
He said the Manis site also “provides the first evidence that these people had osseous technologies,” which he defined as the knowledge and the means to create tools or weapons from bones, antlers or ivory.
Then “we see it moving on into Clovis” and other early sites, Waters said.
Waters said osseous technology is formidable. The materials create “a very lethal and durable weapon. You get deep penetration with these weapons,” he said.
The killing technique is different from stone weapons, Waters said. “With a stone point, as the elephant moves, it bleeds. But with this, the projectile is penetrating deep into the animal. It’s very lethal.”
Waters said Gustafson was bucking long-established theory when he declared the bone point was made by a hunter.
“The Clovis theory was very elegant,” Waters said. Among other aspects, the Clovis model suggested that man arrived in the Americas at a time when there was an “ice free corridor” from Asia to the Americas that could be walked.
Waters said theories tend to change only grudgingly. “Before 1927 scientists thought (human beings) were only here about 6,000 years,” he said.
A site found near present-day Folsom, N.M., in 1926 provided proof of mankind’s presence in the Americas 9,000 to 10,000 years ago.
The Blackwater Draw site, found in the latter 1930s near present-day Clovis, N.M., provided definitive proof there were hunters in the Americas 13,000 years ago.
Clovis was considered more than simply the earliest site found in the Americas: “Clovis Man” was considered a kind of cultural predecessor for all other early Americans, an idea that many scientists clung to ferociously for decades.
Waters said through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s “more and more sites were being found” that appeared older than Clovis. But the Clovis-first contingent always insisted these sites grew from the movement and the expansion of the original Clovis culture.
They always disputed the evidence, Waters said, saying “There were problems with the dating, geological context — or they weren’t artifacts at all. But then, slowly but surely, there were credible sites.”
In recent decades, Waters said, “There’s been a whole bunch of new evidence.”
“The scale is tipping. But once people have believed something for 20, 30 years, it’s hard to shake off old models. There’s always resistance to change,” Waters said.
Waters said the Manis mastodon provides an opportunity for Sequim. Others with similar finds, he said, have built “a museum, an interpretive center. The same thing could be done in your city,” he said.
Waters suggested not just a museum of the Manis mastodon, “but also tell the story of the peopling of the area. What was the Ice Age like? The climate, the animals?
“And then the people.”
“You could have a whale of a display,” he said.
Waters received his Ph.D. in geosciences from the University of Arizona in 1983 and also is the director of the North Star Archaeological Fund.
Waters has served on more than 50 archaeological field projects in the United States, Yemen, Jamaica and Russia. The National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society have funded his research.
Waters specializes in geoarchaeology (the application of the geosciences to archaeological research), Late Quaternary geology and PaleoIndian archaeology.