• AP Magazine

    An alternative way to explore and explain the mysteries of our world. "Published since 1985, online since 2001."

  • 1
Alternate Perceptions Magazine, June 2020

Problems in North American Chronology

by: Bill Branch

While it does not always receive attention as a subject in its own right, the prehistoric chronology of North America is ever present in the background of all archaeological work. Establishing an accurate chronology is essential to properly understanding all archaeological contexts. When two sources differ on the date of a prehistoric site or event by even only a few hundred years, those few hundred years in prehistoric chronology could easily mean the difference between whether or not two different populations were able to interact with one another, to trade or make war, or pass on knowledge and traditions. Even larger chronological discrepancies risk distorting prehistoric narratives to the point of being fully erroneous. Tribal alliances and great chiefdoms such as the Powhatan Chiefdom have risen and fallen within only 200 years or less. Jamestown itself was first established only a little over 400 years ago, and the United States as we know it today only established about 250 years ago. In other words, a lot can happen in a relatively short period of time, which makes chronological accuracy that much more important to our understanding of the past.

It is precisely because so much can happen in so little time that it is extremely disconcerting to see the best available C-14 data and other analyses differing from each other by hundreds, if not thousands of years in some cases. The Great Serpent Mound in Ohio can be taken as a prominent example of this. As Dr. Greg Little notes on page 167 of Path of Souls, a C-14 study from 1991 dated the Serpent Mound to 1130 AD, while a 2012 study dated it between 400 BC and 80 BC, and the Harvard Peabody Museum’s Frederic Putnam originally dated the site from 800 BC to 100 AD when he studied it in the 1880s. [1] Such varying ranges of dates are common to find attributed to any number of archaeological sites in North America. Sometimes the discrepancies are even larger, and the potential consequences this has on archaeological studies can be imagined, yet this uncertainty has existed in the field since the beginning.

The purpose of this essay is not necessarily to find solutions, but only to draw attention to some of these unresolved issues as a distinct class of related problems. If we are to be more certain of anything else in North American archaeology, this underlying chronology deserves more critical attention.

History of Prehistoric Dating Methods

The modern, scientific study of North American archaeology was initiated by a series of discoveries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Thomas Jefferson earned recognition as the father of American archaeology after methodically excavating a native mound near his home, noting its distinct layers (strata) and publishing his findings in Notes on the State of Virginia in 1785. England’s William Smith and France’s Georges Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart more fully developed what became the modern study of stratigraphy in the last decades of the 1700s and first of the 1800s. Over a hundred years later, scientists developed the first modern isotopic dating methods following the Second World War.

Stratigraphy was an invaluable development, but could not establish absolute dates in years on its own. Different layers of subsoil give clear evidence of being deposited in succession over time, as the Danish priest Nicholas Steno had noted as early as 1669, but those layers of subsoil did not necessarily indicate any specific range of years during which they were at the surface, for example. Counting the rings of trees growing over archaeological sites and various other methods could sometimes provide a rough indication of age, but there was no reliable way to estimate an age in years for each strata until after the carbon-14 (C-14) isotopic dating method was developed by Willard Frank Libby in the late 1940s. This method promised to use the half-lives of atmospheric, radioactive isotopes such as carbon-14 to provide reliable dates for the death (ie, the termination of respiration and thus circulation of atmospheric C-14) of organic materials. Needless to say, popular views in the West had changed substantially between 1669 and the 1940s, notably in the movement from a Bible-based worldview to a secular, science-based worldview. Nonetheless, many of the same basic questions about North America’s past chronology remained unanswered, and geologists and archaeologists alike hoped that C-14 analysis would provide solutions.

The innovators of this new postwar, atomic era technology ran into their first stumbling blocks while attempting to calibrate their technique to the measured C-14 levels of ancient objects with “known” dates. This produced a sufficiently contradictory body of data that scientists realized the technique needed better calibration data. Scientists believe that ratios of carbon-14 in the atmosphere have changed over the Earth’s history, and so past atmospheric C-14 levels fluctuated to some extent. One fundamental problem facing carbon-14 dating was how to determine past C-14 levels before the dating method had been calibrated. Calibration effectively requires the data that the finished product is supposed to produce, creating an impossible situation that ultimately must rely upon some other, independent dating method for reliable data. Suppose, for example, that someone came forward with a sample of organic material and said, “Here, this material is 10,000 years old, so use it to help calibrate your new carbon-14 dating method.” The question immediately arises, “How do you already know it is 10,000 years old if the only reliable method has not yet been calibrated properly?” The only acceptable answer was that prehistoric ages had to be proven by another, truly independent method first.

Dendrochronology offered itself as a potential solution by the very straightforward and intuitive method of counting tree rings and measuring their C-14 levels, creating a timeline of atmospheric C-14 level changes. By analyzing older, dead trees, their C-14 levels could theoretically be matched and overlapped onto the data from living trees, thereby extending the C-14 data even farther back into the past. While this seems like a workable solution for deriving independent calibration data, geologists and archaeologists continue to regularly revise both their calibration data and the resulting age estimates, and criticisms of modern dendrochronology exist as well, though they are outside the scope of this article.

Gradualism versus Catastrophism

One element of American archaeology and geology that has changed relatively little since the early 1800s is the gradualist point of view and its resulting chronology, which are generally still dominant among institutions of higher learning today. The Scottish geologist James Hutton first introduced the field of geology to gradualism in 1795, and others developed it from there. Again these ideas emerged in an Enlightenment context in reaction to biblical creationist views of the Earth being about six thousand years old. According to gradualists, the surface of the Earth formed mostly from very gradual, virtually imperceptible processes over incomprehensible spans of time as long as millions or even billions of years. While more educated members of Enlightenment society may have taken to ideas such as Hutton’s relatively early, it took much longer into the 19th and even early 20th centuries before the general public began to accept gradualist ideas as opposed to strictly biblical ones, and the scientific methods required to validate ideas of millions and billions of years of age also lagged behind the theories themselves.

Gradualism assumes, of course, that these enormous epochs of time were relatively uneventful and calm, allowing the gradual processes to take place uninterrupted, and that celestial impacts and other natural disasters were very rare or otherwise inconsequential to surface geology. It was not long, however, before geologists and others began recognizing an increasing amount of evidence for many past natural disasters, from ancient floods, to massive volcano eruptions, to meteor impacts, and all seemingly within the not-too-distant geological past. Some of these catastrophes, such as the impact event evidenced in a 2014 study Kinzie et al,, clearly had global consequences, and were even responsible for inaugurating new geologic eras. [2] The idea that the surface of the Earth can be changed so rapidly in such a way undermines the idea that the Earth's geology slowly transformed over millions and millions of calm and peaceful years, and so leads to an opposing school of thought: “catastrophism.”

The catastrophist position was given new energy in the early 2000s when geologists discovered that a layer of black soot extending across much of the northern hemisphere was very rich in microscopic diamonds and other odd materials that could have only been created by extreme heat and pressure. This “black mat” layer and its contents were the focus of the 2014 Kinzie just mentioned above. Significantly, the very existence of this layer forced gradualists to resort to explanations including massive volcanic eruptions or even space dust, arguments that already suppose short-term events (catastrophes, in other words) affecting the Earth’s surface rather than the various “millions-of-years” processes that they usually prefer to invoke. Nonetheless, Kinzie’s team of over two dozen researchers from numerous universities concluded that volcanic eruptions and space dust were not consistent with the physical evidence, and that the only plausible scenario to explain all of this evidence would be a celestial impact event and subsequent atmospheric dust and debris cloud of intense heat, which later settled down onto the surface and became the diamond-rich black mat layer. Furthermore, this layer of subsoil occurs at what geologists call the “Younger Dryas Boundary” (YDB), which marks the end of the Pleistocene, strongly implying that this impact event ended the last ice age. This new theory was further refined to argue that “a major cosmic episode of multiple airbursts/impacts” over the Great Lakes region created the YDB and black mat layer of soil associated with it. [3]

Carolina Bays: How and When?

“Carolina Bays” is just a regional term for crater-like depressions in the surface of the Earth that actually appear at least from Maryland and southern New Jersey (where they are called the Delmarva or Maryland Basins), in a wide arc, down the eastern seaboard from Virginia and the Carolinas to Georgia and Florida, and straight across the Gulf States and back as far to the northwest as Nebraska (the “Nebraska Rainwater Basins”) and even Alaska. What are these depressions? It depends which geologist you ask. They were initially regarded as ponds or wetlands formed by wind erosion during the ice age, and many geologists still subscribe to this view. More recent research within the last couple of decades strongly indicates that these depressions were created by a cataclysmic impact event at the end of the last ice age, however, which was also responsible for mass extinctions and global climate change, and in fact the end of the ice age itself. Since the fundamental nature of these geologic features is still being debated among geologists, there are no reliable estimates or comprehensive surveys of the total number of them, but on the eastern seaboard alone these depressions number upwards of half a million.

When these features formed is also contested in relation to the same debate, and so seems to depend upon which theory one prefers for their formation. Geologists first noticed these depressions from photographs in the 1930s, and theories on their origin immediately began to proliferate. Most geologists initially regarded them as features created by the wind or water, supposed to have developed over a very long period of time, thus conforming to the pre-existing gradualist point of view by default. Others, however, such as Melton and Shriever in 1933, were recording ideas of celestial (meteorite) showers peppering the continent from the beginning. [4] The depressions had an obvious resemblance to impact craters that anyone could recognize, but the problem was that there was no physical evidence of meteorite material found in any of the depressions, so the meteorite theory fell apart. These depressions were also discovered in the Virginia Piedmont, so far inland that the common explanation of tidal erosion would have been impossible during the Pleistocene. Furthermore, the depressions sometimes overlap or even fit inside of each other, a phenomenon that should also be impossible by the extremely slow wind and water erosion theories.

Research after the turn of the 21st century began to focus again on the celestial impact hypothesis for the creation of the craters. A number of academic researchers published new revelations on the issue, including contributors to Kinzie et al.’s work. Among the new discoveries were that the elongated axes of these craters collectively pointed back to a common origin point over Saginaw Bay, Michigan. As that entire region was under massive ice sheets during the Pleistocene, scientists began to consider that the objects which impacted the ground were not solid rock like a meteorite, but may have instead been massive chunks of ejected ice sheet which subsequently melted and left behind only the crater itself. This new hypothesis satisfied several unresolved issues and fit nicely with the other work being done on the Younger Dryas Boundary and the mass extinctions at the end of the ice age, but was still dismissed out of hand by committed gradualists.

As recently as 2010 the Southeastern Archaeological Conference published a paper stating as if a matter of undisputed fact that these features were “shallow lakes” with a “distinctive shape and NW-SE orientation…developed through stronger-than-present southwesterly winds blowing over water ponded in shallow depressions.” In other words, the idea is that very strong winds blew over the surface of shallow water in such a way that it carved out these huge depressions “over a long period of time.” Despite the longstanding criticisms of this theory, the SAC authors failed to address how overlapping craters, and even craters inside of craters, could have been created via these processes, or created upland in the Piedmont, but even more disconcerting are the date estimates these authors cite. They cite formation dates from other studies ranging from 7,000 years ago (the lower boundary of a 1970 study) to 200,000 years ago (the upper boundary of a 1991 study), an enormous and wildly uncertain range of 193,000 years. It should be remembered that this is the presented as the best available evidence from gradualists even after decades of research into this topic. [5]

The range of dates offered for these features (all based on the same conventional wind erosion model) is problematic on its face considering how significantly the dates differ from one another. A 2001 study dated one depression to over 108,700 years old, plus or minus 10,900 years, while another depression dated to 77,900 years old, plus or minus 7,600 years, a discrepancy which by itself suggests some inconsistency in the manner by which they were formed, seemingly preventing the two depressions from forming simultaneously. The difference between the two extremities of all of the dates cited by Brooks et al., 7,000 and 200,000 years old, is a difference of over 2,850%, a far larger margin of error than one is likely to ever see honestly assigned to the results of one of these tests. It gives one the impression that the physical evidence examined by gradualists can be interpreted and analyzed in dramatically different ways, which in turn implies that the methods being used may not actually be very objective or scientific in the first place, and rely far too much on subjective interpretation. There are so many variables and assumptions underlying these various studies and their dating techniques that it would be difficult to know where to even begin in identifying the reasons why such wide discrepancies exist at all. Everything from differences in the metabolism of trees to an environmental radiation anomaly in the Great Lakes region can influence C-14 results in poorly-understood ways.

On the other side of the debate, catastrophists have produced a substantial body of research over the last two decades favoring the view that the Carolina Bays are in effect craters created by enormous chunks of semi-molten slush that was ejected after cosmic bodies exploded over the North American ice sheets at the close of the Pleistocene, roughly 12,000 years ago, give or take a couple of thousand years depending on the study (still a substantially narrower range than the wildly-varying dates associated with the gradualist interpretation). Catastrophists note the overlapping of craters, their common elongated axis pointing back toward the Great Lakes, their widespread distribution across the North American continent in a diversity of geological contexts, and other data which cannot be satisfactorily explained by the gradualist position of wind and water erosion. [6]

A careful reflection upon how this could be possible, to have two sets of “scientific” C-14 dates so radically different from one another in regards to the Carolina Bays, may be enlightening far beyond this one small example. It is almost as though the dates attributed to these features are somehow influenced by the pre-determined biases of researchers, and that modern scientific dating methods are being used merely as vehicles to validate those pre-determined ideas. Otherwise, how scientific could a dating method be when it can be used to support both of these contradictory positions, with massively varying dates? At least one of these positions is wrong, and possibly both of them, but they cannot both be correct at the same time. Therefore at least some of the C-14 dates must also be significantly in error, or at the very least the results are being badly misinterpreted.

Finally, to return to the isotopic anomaly by the Great Lakes, explorations of that issue have resulted in catastrophist explanations as well. A 2001 article by Richard Firestone of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and William Topping concluded that this radioactive anomaly was also caused by a kind of celestial impact: incredibly intense cosmic rays of radioactive particles, possibly from a supernova. They introduce their work as follows:

“The Paleoindian occupation of North America, theoretically the point of entry of the first people to the Americas, is traditionally assumed to have occurred within a short time span beginning at about 12,000 yr B.P. This is inconsistent with much older South American dates of around 32,000 yr B.P. and the similarity of the Paleoindian toolkit to Mousterian traditions that disappeared about 30,000 years ago. A pattern of unusually young radiocarbon dates in the Northeast has been noted by Bonnichsen and Will. Our research indicates that the entire Great Lakes region (and beyond) was subjected to particle bombardment and a catastrophic nuclear irradiation that produced secondary thermal neutrons from cosmic ray interactions. The neutrons produced unusually large quantities of 239 Pu and substantially altered the natural uranium abundance ratios ( 235 U/238 U) in artifacts and in other exposed materials including cherts, sediments, and the entire landscape. These neutrons necessarily transmuted residual nitrogen ( 14 N) in the dated charcoals to radiocarbon, thus explaining anomalous dates.” [7]

In other words, an ancient “nuclear catastrophe,” or at least some catastrophic event that produced large amounts of thermal neutrons, intensely heated the Earth’s atmosphere, and altered isotopic levels all over the continent. Obviously this has direct implications for C-14 dates in North America, and it also raises additional questions about the theoretical comet impact(s) theorized by Kinzie and his colleagues. The disappearance of certain stone tool technologies dated to around 30,000 years ago, and the sudden reappearance of similar tools nearly 20,000 years later, is a red flag with the chronology as well, as it seems to introduce an artificial gap in what was more likely to have been a direct transmission of knowledge and techniques. Other instances of this will be seen in the next section on the Solutreans and Clovis people.

Part II of this article picks up with the Solutrean Hypothesis and chronological issues related to it.


[1] Greg Little, Path of Souls, Memphis: ATA-Archetype Books, 2014.

[2] Charles R. Kinzie, et al., “Nanodiamond-Rich Layer across Three Continents Consistent with Major Cosmic Impact at 12,800 Cal BP,” The Journal of Geology 122 (2014), 475–506.

[3] Kennett et al. “Bayesian chronological analyses consistent with synchronous age of 12,835–12,735 Cal B.P. for Younger Dryas boundary on four continents,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, 32 (August 2015).

[4] F.A. Melton and W. Schriever, “The Carolina Bays—Are They Meteorite Scars?,” Journal of Geology 41 (1933), 52–66.

[5] M.J. Brooks, B.E. Taylor, and A.H. Ivester, “Carolina bays: time capsules of culture and climate change,” Southeastern Archaeology 29, 1 (Summer 2010), 146–163.

[6] J. Ronald Eyton and Judith I. Parkhurst, “A Re-Evaluation of the Extraterrestrial Origin of the Carolina Bays,” Occasional publications of the Department of Geography, University of Illinois (April 1975).

[7] Richard B. Firestone and William Topping, “Terrestrial Evidence of a Nuclear Catastrophe in Paleoindian Times,” The Mammoth Trumpet 16, 9 (Corvallis: Oregon State University, March 2001).

Bibliography for Part 1 of this Article

Brooks, M. J., Taylor, B. E., and Ivester, A. H. “Carolina bays: time capsules of culture and climate change.” Southeastern Archaeology 29, 1 (Summer 2010), 146–163.

Eyton, J. Ronald, and Parkhurst, Judith I. “A Re-Evaluation of the Extraterrestrial Origin of the Carolina Bays.” Occasional publications of the Department of Geography, University of Illinois (April 1975).

Firestone, Richard B., and Topping, William. “Terrestrial Evidence of a Nuclear Catastrophe in Paleoindian Times,” The Mammoth Trumpet 16, 9 (Corvallis: Oregon State University, March 2001).

Hutton, James. Theory of the Earth. Edinburgh, 1795.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Originally published in Paris, 1785.

Kennett et al. “Bayesian chronological analyses consistent with synchronous age of 12,835–12,735 Cal B.P. for Younger Dryas boundary on four continents.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, 32 (August 2015).

Kinzie, Charles R., et al. “Nanodiamond-Rich Layer across Three Continents Consistent with Major Cosmic Impact at 12,800 Cal BP.” The Journal of Geology 122 (2014), 475–506.

Little, Greg. Path of Souls. Memphis: ATA-Archetype Books, 2014.

Melton, F. A., and Schriever, W. “The Carolina Bays—Are They Meteorite Scars?” Journal of Geology 41 (1933), 52–66.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023