American Association for the Advancement of Science
Seaweed a staple for early Americans
View of excavated Monte Verde II wishbone-shaped structure thought to be a medicinal hut and containing several masticated cuds. "Monte Verde II" refers to the upper layer of the Monte Verde site.
You are an archaeologist excavating a site that was inhabited by some of the earliest people to live in the Americas, about 14,000 years ago. You find ancient fragments of preserved seaweed scattered across the floors and stuck to an ancient cutting tool.
The site isnít on the beach. It would have taken the people several hours to walk to the nearest shore. What do you think the seaweed is doing here?
View of the excavated log foundation of a long residential tent-like structure at Monte Verde II where seaweeds were recovered from hearths, pits and a floor.
Tom Dillehay of Vanderbilt University and his colleagues have been trying to solve this mystery. Many of the seaweed fragments were found in areas used for cooking, suggesting the plants were eaten. Others were mixed with other plants and chewed into clumps, or ďcuds,Ē which may have been used as medicines.
Even though the site wasnít particularly close to the water, the researchers think the people who lived there traveled to the shore to collected seaweed and other marine plants and animals to use for food and medicine.
The site is called Monte Verde, and itís located in southern Chile, near the tip of South America. The siteís location brings up another mystery.
The first people to enter the Americas are thought to have crossed over the Bering Strait, from Siberia to Alaska, about 16,000 years ago. Monte Verde is about 14,000 years old. So, how did people travel all the way down there in just 2,000 years" To archaeologists, thatís a very short period of time!
One possibility is that they traveled along the Pacific coast. The new seaweed discovery at Monte Verde, which appears in the 9 May issue of the journal Science, supports this possibility, because it indicates that these earliest Americans were used to relying on ocean resources for food and medicine.