Discerning the story of America's prehistoric past is a bit like groping through an unfamiliar room in the dark. One learned scientist's tattooing...

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Discerning the story of America’s prehistoric past is a bit like groping through an unfamiliar room in the dark.

One learned scientist’s tattooing tool is another’s piece of rock. Ask them to agree how long it has been there and you’re bound to set off an argument that makes Seattle’s whether-to-monorail conflict seem like a tea party.

So it goes with evolving thought in archaeology. We all know the prevailing theory. Our children’s high-school textbooks talk about the first Americans coming from Asia about 13,000 years ago across the Bering land bridge, chasing big game through Siberia, Alaska and down through Canada and the Pacific Northwest between two ice sheets. That would be about 4,000 years before Kennewick Man is believed to have died on the shores of the Columbia River.

The controversy over whether scientists should study those 9,300-year-old bones — they prevailed in court over tribal objections — piqued my interest about the earliest Americans. I’ll be spending the next year exploring these issues.

My first stop was a four-day archaeological conference, “Clovis in the Southeast,” that attracted about 400 archaeologists and others. And I thought I was in for a break from politics when I left town during election season. Not quite.

Under the established theory, the land-bridge travelers’ descendents were or became Clovis — the first identifiable culture in early America, distinguished by a distinctive spear or arrow point. But in recent years, evidence emerged to challenge Clovis as the first people in America. Clovis culture shows up beginning about 11,500 years ago. But human artifacts some archaeologists believe to be 1,000 to a few thousand years older have been found at a handful of sites from Wisconsin to Monte Verde, Chile.

The “Clovis in the Southeast” conference was called, in part, to showcase the theory-busting findings of University of South Carolina archaeologist Al Goodyear. Though he counted himself firmly among the “Clovis First-ers” a decade ago, he is having a serious case of second thoughts.

At the Topper site in Allendale County, he thinks he has found human-made artifacts associated with materials tested to a breathtaking 50,000 years ago — no spear points, but possibly manufacturing scraps. Several archaeologists were not persuaded the artifacts were human-made.

In a field where breakthroughs are made from diligent gathering and documenting of evidence over decades, such meetings provide a forum for scientists to compare notes and argue. Sometimes, minds start to change.

At the last Clovis-related conference six years ago, Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History advanced what at the time was almost heresy. Soon, he and a colleague will publish a book about their theory that Clovis point technology is derived from that of the Solutrean culture in what is now Spain. Following seals as the climate warmed, people moved north, hopscotching by boat through the Arctic and down into what is now the U.S. Southeast. They spread westward, not the other way around.

Euro-centric prejudice? No. Stanford does not believe Clovis people were first in the Americas. By the time they arrived in the West, they probably ran into other groups, whose people came in other ways, such as over the Bering land bridge. Or maybe by boat along the coasts of Asia and Canada. (That might explain why Clovis sites, plentiful in the East, are rare in the Northwest and Canada — one is near East Wenatchee.)

A couple of serious catches with Stanford’s theory — the 4,000-year gap between Solutrean culture’s disappearance and Clovis’ appearance. And where are the boats?

Stanford believes the evidence to resolve both questions is underwater. The prehistoric Atlantic coastline was possibly hundreds of miles farther east. People made it across the sea to Australia 50,000 years ago. Others traveled over water 30,000 years ago to retrieve pieces of obsidian from Kozushima Island, 95 miles south of Tokyo. How did early people do it?

In opening the conference, the University of Texas’ Michael Collins suggested that the notion early people could not have built seaworthy vessels is akin to “primal racism.”

Hoo, boy. That’s an allegation that will be resolved only by a lot more groping in the dark — and possibly underwater.

Kate Riley’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com