High-tech undersea search for the first Americans

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MYSTIC, Conn. -- Inside a darkened room, oceanographer Robert Ballard stares at an array of flat-screen monitors. The monitor to his left shows a crew of scientists aboard the submarine support vessel Carolyn Chouest in the Gulf of Mexico. On a monitor to his right, a roomful of Rhode Island high school students are intently focused on something unseen. And directly ahead, a large plasma TV plays live footage of what's holding everyone's attention: the ocean floor some 115 miles off the Texas coast...

Today, Ballard and his team are seeking submerged evidence of the first Americans. Any proof of past human habitation in this area of former coastline could sink a long-dominant – and many say hopelessly eroded – hypothesis about who the first Americans were, how they got here, and when they arrived.

"It's a great story in human history," says Kevin McBride, a professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, who is involved in the project. "And as usual, it's a more complicated story than people think."

With the help of the US Navy's only research submarine, NR-1, Ballard's team is mapping the area to determine where early Americans might have lived when the Gulf's underwater hills sat at shoreline. At the height of the last ice age, sea levels were nearly 400 feet lower than they are today. The team's voyage began March 4, along a series of rises called the Flower Garden Banks. Scientists think the area, now filled with colorful sponges and abundant sea life, was a thriving coastal estuary 19,000 years ago – and prime real estate for human habitation...

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