Peculiar Pittsburgh

The oldest site of human habitation in North America is in Pittsburgh’s backyard

Check out Meadowcroft this summer.

Journey way back in time at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village.

Journey way back in time at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village.

Photo by Ed Massery with Tom Underiner / Courtesy of Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village
Rossilynne Culgan

Updated May 3, 2019

Turns out Pittsburgh’s designation as a most livable city dates back 16,000 years.

The oldest site of human habitation in North America, Meadowcroft Rockshelter, is located in Avella, about an hour southwest of the city. The site’s giant rocky overhang made an ideal backdrop for nomadic hunters and gatherers who stopped there to rest, pick berries from the surrounding forest, hunt elk, and fish in Cross Creek, said Meadowcroft’s Director David Scofield.

While it was an ideal camp for the people known as “Paleo-Indians,” it was also an optimal place for the preservation of artifacts, Scofield said. Tucked away from the elements, the rocky perch protected more than a million artifacts, such as stone tools, pottery fragments, pieces of basketry, and animal and plant remains — all clues into what life was like many centuries ago.

The artifacts remained hidden for centuries until 1955 when an unlikely critter intervened: A groundhog. The groundhog’s digging unearthed some artifacts, and the freshly dug hole caught the attention of Albert Miller as he walked his family’s 275-acre farm.

An amateur archaeologist, Miller suspected these artifacts were something special, so he kept the discovery a secret for 18 years while he tried to find a professional archaeologist interested in excavating the site. But he never could have imagined the artifacts would be special enough to rewrite the history of migration into North America.

Starting in 1973, University of Pittsburgh anthropology professor James Adovasio and a team excavated of the site and sent the artifacts to a Smithsonian laboratory.

“The radiocarbon dates came back from the Smithsonian lab, and everyone was shocked,” Scofield said. “It really changed the paradigm. Previous to Meadowcroft, it was always thought that the first people in America had only arrived about 11,500 years ago. This pushed it back, and it was highly controversial at first.”

But now, the site is accepted as “a legitimate pre-Clovis site,” he added, and a deeply important archaeological site that draws visitors from all over the world — even though many Pittsburghers have never visited.

Change that this summer by exploring the site, which is a part of the Heinz History Center, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and a National Historic Landmark. In addition to tours of the rockshelter, Meadowcroft also offers a chance to explore reproductions of a Monongahela Native American village, an 18th century trading post, and a 19th century town.

Journey back in time at Meadowcroft this summer with everything from insider tours to an atlatl competition to a vintage baseball game.

A blacksmith demonstration tells the story of a different era in time.

A blacksmith demonstration tells the story of a different era in time.

Photo by Rachellynn Schoen / Courtesy of Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village
Put your atlatl skills to the test.

Put your atlatl skills to the test.

Courtesy of Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village
Play ball — vintage 'base ball,' that is.

Play ball — vintage 'base ball,' that is.

Courtesy of Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village