Scientists Abuzz over Oregon Discovery

Article excerpt

Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

Human remains found in a cave in Southeastern Oregon have pushed back the known occupation of the Americas by more than a thousand years and vindicated the work of a University of Oregon archaeologist more than 70 years ago.

The evidence, found by current UO archaeologist Dennis Jenkins and his students, offers the first hard evidence that humans found their way into the New World before the emergence of what is known as the Clovis people about 13,000 years ago. The material found in caves near Paisley during digs in 2002 and 2003 has been radiocarbon dated to about 14,300 years ago.

A paper co-written by Jenkins appears today on the Web site of the journal Science and will be included in the print edition. It is believed to be the first time an article in the prestigious journal has focused on an Oregon archaeological site.

The discovery has created a huge buzz among archaeologists, who have long debated the date of the first arrivals in North America and South America. A majority of scientists believe that the Clovis culture, named for the New Mexico city near where their artifacts were first discovered in the 1930s, marked the emergence of the first Americans.

A smaller number of researchers have more recently proposed much earlier dates based on artifacts from a number of sites that appear to predate Clovis. However, none of the older sites included datable human remains, and questions linger over the accuracy of the artifact dates.

Jenkins and an international team of researchers made the link using relatively new scientific techniques to extract human DNA from fossilized feces, material known as coprolites, found in the Paisley caves. If verified, the work virtually proves the earlier arrival theory and provides the oldest human DNA found in the Americas.

"Here we've basically broken the Clovis barrier that has been standing for 70 years," Jenkins said. "I think that establishing that Clovis was not first is a huge step."

UO archaeologist Jon Er-landson, who was not involved in the research, said the findings solve a big problem for supporters of the early arrival theory. That problem was created by the Monte Verde site in Chile, which yielded artifacts that dated to 14,500 years ago.

"Until now there have been no sites in North America that have been widely accepted that are anywhere near that old," Erlandson said. "So how did people get to South America without leaving more traces in North America? This helps plug that gap."

The coprolites proved to be something of an archaeological treasure trove. They not only put people in the Americas long before Clovis, they also provide information about the diet of the first people and hints of their genetic ancestry.

Based on fossil pollen and other material in the coprolites, researchers believe people were gathering food in nearby marshes, in drier upland areas and in nearby forests. They may have been eating sage hen, possibly fox, fish and a variety of plants, such as desert parsley and various seeds.

The series of eight west-facing caves are on what was the highest shore of ancient Lake Chewaucan in the Summer Lake basin, an area now managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The coprolites allow researchers to "really begin to reconstruct how people were living, how healthy they were, how varied their diet was," Jenkins said. "What it indicates to me is they were well adapted to their environment."

Jenkins and his students, part of the UO's summer archaeological field school, also found surprisingly fine thread made from animal sinew, pieces of basketry, cordage, wood pegs, stone points and other artifactsnot as old as the coprolites.

The research finally validates work done in the 1930s by the UO's Luther Cressman, considered the father of Oregon anthropology. Cressman was the first scientist to excavate the caves and contended as early as 1940 that they showed late Pleistocene habitation, but he lacked corroboration and his assertion was dismissed. …