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The Great Paleolithic War

How Science Forged an Understanding of America’s Ice Age Past

Following the discovery in Europe in the late 1850s that humanity had roots predating known history and reaching deep into the Pleistocene era, scientists wondered whether North American prehistory might be just as ancient. And why not? The geological strata seemed exactly analogous between America and Europe, which would lead one to believe that North American humanity ought to be as old as the European variety. This idea set off an eager race for evidence of the people who might have occupied North America during the Ice Age—a long, and, as it turned out, bitter and controversial search.
In The Great Paleolithic War, David J. Meltzer tells the story of a scientific quest that set off one of the longest-running feuds in the history of American anthropology, one so vicious at times that anthropologists were deliberately frightened away from investigating potential sites. Through his book, we come to understand how and why this controversy developed and stubbornly persisted for as long as it did; and how, in the process, it revolutionized American archaeology.

680 pages | 18 halftones, 9 tables | 7 x 10 | © 2015

Anthropology: Physical Anthropology


Biological Sciences: Paleobiology, Geology, and Paleontology

Earth Sciences: History of Earth Sciences

History of Science


"Scientific history is rarely both riveting and magisterial, but this book is an exception. With an engaging, indeed spellbinding prose style, Meltzer covers one of the greatest controversies in archaeology, the recognition and acceptance of Pleistocene human occupations in the Americas. He does so in encyclopedic but never boring detail . . . . As Churchill reputedly said, 'History shall be kind to me, for I intend to write it.' I suspect history will be similarly kind to Meltzer, for writing so prolifically and sharing his thoughts so openly, and in the process consciously setting research approaches and agendas about how the study of the early settlement of the Americas should proceed. We need more people in our field writing books like this on the history of American archaeology."

Journal of Anthropological Research

"Meltzer's new book is a meticulous study of the controversy over human antiquity in America, a dispute that transformed North American archaeology as a practice and discipline, tracing it from 1862-1941. The Great Paleolithic War traces the heated and multi-disciplinary debates over the existence of a Pleistocene human antiquity in North America. Meltzer’s book is a thick history that introduces readers not only to the major conceptual, epistemological, and methodological issues at stake in the controversy, but also to the figures who debated the nature and scope of human antiquity in America. Anyone with an interest in the history of archaeology or the study of human origins should check it out!"

New Books Network

"Meltzer is at the forefront of research into the colonization and early settlement of North America. This book is the outcome of immense scholarship and meticulous research. It is also a labor of love; this is not a dry catalogue of past errors and triumphs, but a gripping account of the protagonists and the issues, claims, and counter-claims with which they grappled. This is not only a great read, and a brilliant piece of scholarship, but also a mirror image of what our European faced (and still face) when documenting our deep past."


"Meltzer has produced a magnum opus—a 700-page, exhaustively researched and documented history of 'The Great Paleolithic War'. It is brilliantly written with his characteristic wit and gentle humor. It is a history of competition, jealousy, spite, irreconcilable interpretations, and sometimes grudging agreement, between and among members of various warring cliques of scientists. In sum, Meltzer has given us a superb, beautifully documented and elegant essay on the sociology of knowledge-making in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American archaeology and Pleistocene geology."

American Antiquity

"Meltzer’s book sheds new light on an important controversy that influenced the development of the study of the ancient past. The Great Paleolithic War not only provides a detailed and well-grounded intellectual history of North American archeology, but it can also be read as an epistemological laboratory in which it is possible to explore the different epistemologies that constrain and expand the human deep past."


"Meltzer has obviously been hard at work on this book for many years. His erudition and his care show through. To call his bibliography extensive is an understatement; he has read and quotes from books, journals, and the papers of even minor participants. Metzler provides a model for how others might well analyze the resolution of controversies. He mastered several sciences in order to describe the interactions as well as the ambitions of many men as they argued bitterly. Even those not particularly drawn to archaeology can profit from reading this book and examining its construction."

Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

"In this volume, Meltzer elegant tapestry and highly engaging chronicle of the rise and fall of the American Paleolithic and the ultimate resolution of the co-existence of early Native Americans with the late Ice Age bestiary. [In this] richly documented volume, I find his summary of the role(s) of geology in resolving the Paleolithic question to be both insightful and singularly impressive."

American Anthropologist

"Meltzer’s book is the first detailed and comprehensive historical examination of the scientific debate over whether humans were present in the Americas during the Pleistocene, and the only history that fully recognizes and adequately treats the extent to which this debate played out not only among archaeologists, but involved complex interactions between archeologists, glacial geologists, Pleistocene paleontologists, and anthropologists. This is an important and much-needed contribution that fills a notable gap in the history of anthropology and archeology."

Matthew Goodrum, Virginia Tech

"Meltzer has given us the most detailed historical interpretation of the tumultuous, half-century search for Paleolithic man in America that we are ever likely to receive. Through patient archival digging and first-hand field knowledge, archaeologist and historian Meltzer weighs and balances the evidence--archaeological, paleontological, geological, and most importantly psychological--to reveal finally his critical conclusion: status matters. Controversy in science is settled chiefly when those most competent to judge, and in position to do so, decide it is time to settle it. A superb achievement, with implications far beyond the arcanae of archaeology."

Curtis M. Hinsley, author of The Lost Itinerary of Frank Hamilton Cushing

"Readers clinging to the notion that science is a peaceful pursuit of the truth will be shocked by the story told in David J. Meltzer’s The Great Paleolithic War, which depicts science 'red in tooth and claw.' Denouncing one another as fakers, frauds, and charlatans, American archaeologists, anthropologists, glacial geologists, and vertebrate paleontologists fought to ascertain when humans first appeared in North America. Focusing on the controversies between the 1870s, when the debate erupted, and the late 1920s, when discoveries in New Mexico resolved it in favor of a Pleistocene antiquity of humans in the New World, the distinguished archaeologist Meltzer provides a riveting account of this momentous episode in the history of American science."

Ronald L. Numbers, University of Madison - Wisconsin

Table of Contents

Roster of Individuals

CHAPTER ONE A Study in Controversy

1.1 Beginning and ending
1.2 A powerful lens
1.3 Approaching the inquiry 
1.4 The data of history
1.5 The scope and structure of controversy

CHAPTER TWO Setting the Stage

2.1 Establishing the parameters
2.2 Bringing the Paleolithic to America
2.3 Rude Americans?
2.4 Looking anew
2.5 Where to next?

CHAPTER THREE Establishing the American Paleolithic, 1872– 1881

3.1 Charles Abbott builds the foundation
3.2 Frederic Ward Putnam comes aboard
3.3 Firming up the structure
3.4 The Trenton paleoliths go public
3.5 Subdividing the glacial epoch
3.6 Abbott’s Primitive Industry
3.7 The sound of the applause
3.8 The creed of George Frederick Wright
3.9 Seeking his just reward

CHAPTER FOUR The American Paleolithic Comes of Age, 1882–1889

4.1 The Paleolithic comes in quartz
4.2 Lest Trenton be forgotten
4.3 The American Paleolithic comes together
4.4 Abbott takes center stage
4.5 Pushing the antiquity envelope
4.6 Thomas Chamberlin and the question of glacial history
4.7 The Kettle Moraine moves east
4.8 Mapping the Pennsylvania moraine
4.9 An uneasy association
4.10 Hard times for the USGS
4.11 Wrangling over the glacial boundary
4.12 Synthesis and antithesis
4.13 Wright’s Ice Age in North America 
4.14 The bandwagon rolls
4.15 Looking to the future of the past

CHAPTER FIVE The Great Paleolithic War, 1890– 1897

5.1 The Bureau of Ethnology takes the field
5.2 William Henry Holmes and the lessons of Piney Branch 
5.3 Abbott returns fire
5.4 The gathering storm
5.5 The preliminary skirmish
5.6 The Great Paleolithic War
5.7 The “Betinseled Charlatan” affair
5.8 Mounting a defense
5.9 Collateral damage
5.10 Holmes’s march through the American Paleolithic
5.11 Point/counterpoint
5.12 On the unity or diversity of the glacial period
5.13 Showdown in Madison
5.14 Interregnum 
5.15 Returning to the field of battle
5.16 An end and a beginning 

CHAPTER SIX Cro-Magnons in Kansas, Neanderthals in Nebraska, 1899–1914

6.1 Human skeletal remains emerge from the Trenton Gravel
6.2 Aleš Hrdlička
6.3 The Trenton femur: A preliminary look
6.4 Hrdlička finds his method
6.5 Holmes gets his man
6.6 Cro-Magnons in Kansas?
6.7 On the origin and age of loess
6.8 Loess and the Lansing man
6.9 Remedial lessons
6.10 Dressed for battle, no one to fight
6.11 Neanderthals in Nebraska?
6.12 Hrdlička’s Skeletal Remains Suggesting or Attributed to Early Man in North America
6.13 Over before it began
6.14 Lansing to Long’s Hill: Loess to dust
6.15 Trenton redux?

CHAPTER SEVEN Dangerous to the Cause of Science, 1915–1925

7.1 Oliver Hay offers a faunal solution
7.2 Men and mammoth at Vero
7.3 A nonharmonic convergence
7.4 Spinning the message
7.5 Turf wars
7.6 Finding Vero’s place on the human family tree
7.7 Violating the sacred confines
7.8 Eras’ ends
7.9 Dangerous to the cause of science
7.10 With friends like these
7.11 Speaking of old evidence

CHAPTER EIGHT In the Belly of the Beast, 1921–1928

8.1 Harold Cook and Jesse Figgins— willful revolutionaries
8.2 Anthropoid apes in America? 
8.3 Another head of the Hydra
8.4 When it rains . . .
8.5 Bearding the lion
8.6 What’s in a name? 
8.7 Mammoths and metates 
8.8 Baiting the trap
8.9 From the lion’s den . . .
8.10 . . . to the belly of the beast
8.11 Seeking a new identity
8.12 Hedging bets
8.13 Will the rising tide lift all boats?
8.14 Whereas, Folsom
8.15 Coming apart at the (mu)seams
8.16 Once more, with feeling
8.17 Dead men walking
8.18 The sound of victory, the silence of defeat

CHAPTER NINE Fast Forward, 1930– 1941

9.1 Lining up the shot
9.2 “Scattered around like a dog buries bones”
9.3 Still fighting the last war
9.4 Not just another old site
9.5 Refining the Pleistocene 
9.6 Converging on a chronology
9.7 The peopling process
9.8 Recognizing variation and change
9.9 A Philadelphia story
9.10 What have the bones to say?
9.11 Profiling
9.12 Finding the time
9.13 Fast forward

CHAPTER TEN Controversy and Its Resolution

10.1 The medium is not the message
10.2 Challenging context
10.3 Ascertaining antiquity
10.4 Numbers going nowhere
10.5 Flattening the past 
10.6 “Savaging” the present
10.7 Hrdlička’s lament 
10.8 When disciplines collide
10.9 Last days of the tyro
10.10 All scientists are equal, but some are more equal than others
10.11 “Be sure to mention Kidder”
10.12 Victims of the Matthew Effect
10.13 Prehistory repeats itself
10.14 Living in an old New World
10.15 Controversy and its resolution

Appendix: Whatever became of . . . ? 
A. Manuscript sources
B. Printed sources: Primary
C. Printed sources: Secondary

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