Writing and teaching American history before the arrival of Europeans used to be easier. Not long ago this was a history with clearly identifiable protagonists and a compelling story arc bracketed by an unambiguous beginning and ending. It exuded high drama, revolving around the great themes of discovery and survival, and it was preoccupied with timing. Its sources were relatively limited—bones, tools, language—and its practitioners were a self-contained group of archaeologists and anthropologists, whose findings coalesced in the 1960s into a model that seemed carved in stone. The model had simplicity, even a kind of elegance, which many took for proof.

At the core of this model was a grand narrative that went something like this: it is 12,000 B.C.E., the tail end of the...

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