The Burnham Site in Northwestern Oklahoma: Glimpses beyond Clovis?

Article excerpt

The Burnham Site in Northwestern Oklahoma: Glimpses Beyond Clovis? Compiled and edited by DON G. WYCKOFF, JAMES L. THELER, and BRIAN J. CARTER. Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, University of Oklahoma, Norman, and the Oklahoma Anthropological Society, 2003. xii + 315 pp., 267 figures, 56 tables, 8 plates, 1 appendix. $15.00 (paper).

The past 70 years of North American archaeology have witnessed repeated claims of human occupation of the Americas before about 12,000 years ago. Except for a few special cases, most notably Monte Verde in Chile and Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania, all claims have been quickly discredited and forgotten. The Burnham site volume represents yet another claim for a very ancient (~35,000 years ago) human occupation of North America. Before discussing this volume further, I must acknowledge that I approached this review from the perspective of someone who is highly skeptical of any claims for a pre-Clovis occupation of North America. I hold to the old adage that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Data recovered from the intensive and thorough investigation of the Burnham site are, as the editors openly admit, "not the smoking gun needed to resolve current controversies about the presence of pre-Clovis humans in North America" (p. 303).

The Burnham site contains a small number of highly suspect artifacts recovered from a reworked lacustrine deposit (Unit IIBb) that likely date to sometime between 22,600 and 46,200 years ago. The lack of definitive artifacts from an undisturbed and well-dated context at Burnham makes it impossible for a skeptic to accept this site as a reasonable claim for a very early occupation of the New World. That said, I judge the value of this volume not on the case for a "pre-Clovis" occupation in Oklahoma (a difficult proposition in the best of circumstances), but instead on whether it makes valuable contributions in other areas of research, such as paleoenvironmental reconstructions, vertebrate paleontology, geoarchaeology, or archaeological methodology.

Investigations at the Burnham site began in 1986, when Wyckoff visited the site to investigate a concentration of large bison bones exposed during the construction of an erosion control dam in northwestern Oklahoma. The site investigators initially assumed the site only represented a paleontological deposit. They began their work at the site simply in order to recover remains of a poorly-known variety of a Late Pleistocene longhom bison (Bison chaneyi) and to collect associated radiometric and environmental samples. It was nearly a year after the initial fieldwork was completed that the suggestion of a possible cultural component at the site was raised. This came about when lab workers, sorting the heavy fraction from water screening at the site, discovered two small possible flakes and a possible tested cobble. These discoveries spurred more detailed investigations at the site that would occur on and off for the next six years by a multidisciplinary team of archaeologists, geologists, soil scientists, paleontologists, and biologists. The current volume summarizes the result of this work.

This volume is a collection of edited papers originally prepared between 1990 and 1996, which for various reasons outlined in the first chapter were never brought together in a single volume until 2003. The book's twenty chapters are grouped into four parts: (1) project background and history, (2) geological studies, (3) biological studies, and (4) site integrity, chronology, and significance. The editors wrote or co-authored twelve of these chapters. Outside scholars made additional contributions in the areas of site geology (Wakefield Dort, Larry Martin), vertebrate paleontology (Larry Martin, T.J. Meehan, Nicholas Czaplewski), paleobotany and palynology (Barbara Keener, Paul Minnis, Peter Van de Water, Peter Wigand), possible human artifacts (Kent Buehler), and site formation history (Lawrence Todd). …