Hueyatlaco is an archeological site in the Valsequillo Basin near the city of Puebla, Mexico. After excavations in the 1960s, the site became notorious due to geochronologists’ analyses that indicated human habitation at Hueyatlaco was dated to ca. 250,000 years before the present.
These controversial findings are orders of magnitude older than the scientific consensus for habitation of the New World (which generally traces widespread human migration to the New World to 13,000 to 16,000 ybp). The findings at Hueyatlaco have mostly been repudiated by the larger scientific community, and have seen only occasional discussion in the literature.
Overview of excavation
Cynthia Irwin-Williams led the team that first excavated the site in 1962 The dig is often associated with Virginia Steen-McIntyre because of her continuing efforts to publicize her findings and opinions. However, the site was actually discovered by Juan Armenta Camacho and Irwin-Williams. Steen-McIntyre joined the team in 1966 as a graduate student, at the request of project geologist Hal Malde. The excavation was associated with the U.S. Geological Survey.
The region, about 75 miles SE of Mexico City, was known for its abundance of animal fossils, and Irwin-Williams described Hueyatlaco as a “kill site” where animals were hunted and butchered.
Excavations were conducted via standard protocols, including securing the sites to prevent trespass or accidental disturbances. During excavation, investigators discovered numerous stone tools. The tools ranged from relatively primitive implements at a smaller associated site, to more sophisticated items such as scrapers and double-edged blades uncovered at the main excavation site. The diversity of tools made from non-local materials suggested that the region had been used by multiple groups over a considerable period.
In 1967, Jose L. Lorenzo of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia claimed that implements had been planted at the site by local laborers in such a way as to make it difficult or impossible to determine which artifacts were discovered in situ and which were planted. Irwin-Williams counter-argued that Lorenzo’s claims were malicious and without merit. Furthermore, in 1969 Irwin-Williams cited statements of support from three prominent archeologists and anthropologists (Richard MacNeish, Hannah Marie Wormington and Frederick A. Peterson) who had each visited the site independently and attested to the integrity of the excavations and the professionalism of the group’s methodology.
First dating publication
In mid-1969, B.J. Szabo, Malde and Irwin-Williams published their first paper about dating the excavation site. The stone tools were discovered in situ in a stratum that also contained animal remains. Radiocarbon dating of the animal remains produced an age of over 35,000 ybp. Uranium dating produced an age of 260,000 ybp, ± 60,000 years.
The authors stated that they had no definitive explanation for the anomalous results. However, Malde suggested the tool-bearing strata had possibly been eroded by an ancient streambed, thus combining older and newer strata and complicating dating.
Attempts to resolve anomaly
In 1973, Steen-MacIntyre, Malde and Roald Fryxell returned to Hueyatlaco to re-examine the geographic strata and more accurately determine an age for the tool-bearing strata. They were able to rule out Malde’s streambed hypothesis. Moreover, the team undertook an exhaustive analysis of volcanic ash and pumice from the original excavation site and the surrounding region. Using the zircon fission-track dating method, geochemist C.W. Naeser dated samples of ash from Hueyatlaco’s tool-bearing strata to 370,000 ybp +/- 240,000 years.
The confirmation of an anomalously distant age for human habitation at the Hueyatlaco site led to tension between Irwin-Williams and the other team members. Malde and Fryxell announced the findings at a Geological Society of America meeting, admitting that they could not account for the anomalous results. Irwin-Williams responded by describing their announcement as “irresponsible”. Given the substantial margin of error for the fission-track findings, and the then-new method of uranium dating, Irwin-Williams asserted that Hueyatlaco had not been accurately dated to her satisfaction.
For the next several years, the excavation team were often at odds as they discussed how to move forward with the Hueyatlaco findings. Malde and Steen-McIntyre argued that the 200,000 ybp findings were valid, while Irwin-Williams argued in favor of a more recent — though still somewhat controversial — figure of 20,000 ybp. Webb and Clark suggest that her promoting the 20,000ybp date is “particularly puzzling,” as it was unsupported by any evidence the team uncovered.
The delays forced Steen-McIntyre to write her doctoral dissertation not on Hueyatlaco as planned, but rather on the dating of volcanic ash in geographic strata.
Despite leading the original excavations, Irwin-Williams never published a final report on the site.
In 1981, the journal Quaternary Research published a paper by Steen-McIntyre, Fryxell and Malde that defended an anomalously distant age of human habitation at Hueyatlaco. The paper reported the results of four sophisticated, independent tests: uranium-thorium dating, fission track dating, tephra hydration dating and the studying of mineral weathering to determine the date of the artifacts. These tests, among other data, validated a date of 250,000ypb for the Hueyatlaco artifacts. They wrote:
- The evidence outlined here consistently indicates that the Hueyatlaco site is about 250,000 yr. old. We who have worked on geological aspects of the Valsequillo area are painfully aware that so great an age poses an archeological dilemma […] In our view, the results reported here widen the window of time in which serious investigation of the age of Man in the New World would be warranted. We continue to cast a critical eye on all the data, including our own.
In a letter to Quaternary Research, Irwin-Williams objected to several points in the article by Steen-McIntyre et al.; Malde and Steen-McIntyre responded with a point-by-point rebuttal.
Steen-McIntyre claims that some of the original research team were harassed, viewed as incompetent, or saw their careers hampered due to their involvement in such a controversial and anomalous investigation.
In 1996, Steen-McIntyre appeared on the television special “The Mysterious Origins of Man.” Narrated by Charlton Heston, the program detailed a variety of claims that contradicted or challenged the scientific consensus about humanity’s genesis and development. Frank Steiger posted a rebuttal of the program, including Steen-McIntyre’s statements, on a talk.origins discussion board. However, Steiger’s rebuttal claims that Steen-McIntyre discovered “an arrowhead” in New Mexico rather than multiple artifacts in Mexico. It is unclear if the error is Steiger’s, or a misstatement on the television special. Moreover, Steiger’s rebuttal makes no mention of the multiple peer-reviewed papers that appear to support the anomalously old age of tool-bearing strata at Hueyatlaco. Again, it’s uncertain if the program failed to accurately outline the findings of Steen-McIntyre or if Steiger’s rebuttal was incomplete.
Biostratigraphic researcher Sam VanLandingham has published two peer-reviewed analyses that confirm the earlier findings of ca. 250,000ybp for the tool-bearing strata at Heyatlaco. His 2004 analysis found that Hueyatlaco samples could be dated to the Sangamonian Interglacial period (ca. 80,000 to 220,000ybp) by the presence of multiple diatom species, one of which first appeared during this era and others that went extinct by the era’s end. VanLandingham’s 2006 paper refined and re-confirmed his 2004 findings.