Powerful new evidence that people inhabited the New World 32,000 years ago, more than twice as far into the past as most archeologists believed, has emerged from a rock shelter in Brazil where French scientists have found abundant evidence of human occupation.

The oldest evidence is a fire pit containing charcoal that has been radiocarbon-dated at 32,160 years of age. The date is believed accurate to within 100 years of the time when the wood was burned. Unless the charcoal was contaminated by older sources of carbon or the measuring instruments are found to have been defective, the date is likely to gain wide acceptance among specialists.

Although many claims have been offered over the years for evidence of human occupation of the New World of similar or even greater age, none has gained general acceptance and several have been found to be in error. The oldest universally accepted date is 11,500 years at the Clovis site in New Mexico. One or two other finds, not so widely accepted, push the earliest date back to around 14,000 years ago.

What makes the new find, reported in last week's issue of the British journal Nature, persuasive to archeologists is the context in which it was found. The rock shelter has many layers containing unmistakable evidence of human occupation, including many hearths, stone tools and paintings on now-buried parts of the stone wall.

The layers range in age from 6,160 years ago at the top (therefore youngest) layer to more than 32,000 at the bottom.

Bits of charcoal found in artwork scratched on the wall were determined to be about 17,000 years old, indicating that cave art began in the New World about the time it did in Africa and Eurasia.

The site, called Boqueirao do Sitio da Petra Furada, is in northeastern Brazil's Piaui State. The report was made by N. Guidon, an anthropologist at the Graduate School of Social Sciences in Paris, and G. Delibrias, a radiocarbon-dating expert at the Center for National Research in Science in Gif-sur-Yvette, France.