How and when people first set foot in the Americas is one of the enduring mysteries of human history. Most archaeologists now agree people lived in the Americas before Clovis-style tools—once thought to be linked to the first Americans—appeared about 13,000 years ago. Last year, for example, researchers reported human footprints in White Sands National Park in New Mexico, dating back 23,000 years.
There is a long and shameful history of US researchers trampling Indigenous protocols and needs. This isn’t just matters in living history, it is incredibly current. So something must change! It should be said that the US is not alone in this being the experience of First People. Reflecting on respect, justice and data sovereignty must be a component of professional development for HDR candidates, supervisors, all researchers and research ethics reviewers. Genuine engagement and respect should start at the earliest phases of planning a project and continue far past the publication of research outputs.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
Q: What’s the leading view on how people got to the Americas and when? Does genetics have more to tell us about this?
Jennifer Raff: The genetic and archaeological data both support an entry into the Americas sometime after the first traces of people in [northern] Siberia appear around 30,000 years ago. There’s disagreement on exactly how early, but the majority of scholars agree people were present in the Americas by at least 14,000 years ago. Some think it might have been as early as 27,000 B.C.E., based on sites like White Sands and genetic evidence. But there are major gaps geographically and temporally in the genetic record, like in the middle of North America.