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The hunter who thrust the spear on that long-ago day didn't just bring down the mastodon; he also helped to kill off the reigning theory of how people got to the Americas.For most of the past 50 years, archaeologists thought they knew how humans arrived in the New World.

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My adviser said I would ruin my career,” says Jon Erlandson, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

But findings over the past few years — and a re-examination of old ones, such as the mastodon rib — have shown conclusively that humans reached the Americas well before the Clovis people.

The case for pre-Clovis Americans has now gained more support, including from analyses of ancient DNA.

One of the first bits of genetic evidence came from preserved faeces, or coprolites, that had been discovered in a cave in south-central Oregon by Dennis Jenkins, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon.

“Clovis has been king for 50 years, and now we have to reimagine what the peopling of the New World looked like,” Erlandson says. It took a chance finding halfway around the world to set this reappraisal in motion.

In the late 1970s, Tom Dillehay, an archaeologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, uncovered the remains of a large campsite in southern Chile, close to the tip of South America (see 'Routes to a new world').

It was perfect prey for a band of hunters, wielding spears tipped with needle-sharp points made from bone.

Sensing an easy target, they closed in for the kill.

That has sparked a surge of interest in the field, and opened it up to fresh ideas and approaches.

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