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Colorado spear points date back at least 13,200 years

Bases of Western stemmed projectile points.

Bases of Western Stemmed projectile points.

Archaeological work in Oregon  has found evidence that Western Stemmed projectile points — darts or thrusting spearheads — were present at least 13,200 calendar years ago during or before the Clovis culture in western North America.

In a paper in the July 13 issue of the journal, “Science”, researchers from 13 institutions lay out their findings, which also include substantial new documentation, including analysis by independent labs that confirms human DNA pulled earlier from dried human feces (coprolites) and reported in “Science” in  2008, dates to the same time period.

The study provides yet more evidence of the overlap of early human inhabitants and the last horses in North America, which are known to have persisted until 7600 years ago – at least in Central Alaska, where horse DNA was recovered from permafrost.

The new conclusions on the Oregon finds are based on 190 radiocarbon dates of artifacts, coprolites, bones and sagebrush twigs meticulously removed from well-stratified layers of silt in the ancient Paisley Caves.

Absent from the Paisley Caves, said the project’s lead researcher Dennis L. Jenkins of the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History, is diagnostic evidence of the Clovis culture such as the broad, concave-based, fluted Clovis projectile points.

Dennis Jenkins with a human coprolite (dried feces) found in Oregon's Paisley Caves.

Dennis Jenkins with a human coprolite (dried feces) found in Oregon’s Paisley Caves. Jim Barlow

The radiocarbon dating of the Western Stemmed projectiles to potentially pre-Clovis times provides new information in the decades-old debate that the two point-production technologies overlapped in time and may have developed separately, Jenkins said.

It suggests that Clovis may have arisen in the Southeastern United States and moved west, while the Western Stemmed tradition began, perhaps earlier, in the West and moved east.

One example, he said, is the discovery of Clovis points below Western Stemmed points at Hell Gap, Wyoming.

While this example suggests that Clovis was older in that location than Western Stemmed, the new Paisley Caves evidence indicates that Western Stemmed are at least the same age as Clovis (about 12,800-13,000 years old) in the northern Great Basin of Oregon — about 1000 miles west of Hell Gap.

At least three other Western sites — Cooper’s Ferry in Idaho and Nevada’s Smith Creek Cave and Bonneville Estates Rockshelter — also contain only Western Stemmed points in deposits of this age.

“From our dating, it appears to be impossible to derive Western Stemmed points from a proto-Clovis tradition,” Jenkins said.

“It suggests that we may have here in the Western United States a tradition that is at least as old as Clovis, and quite possibly older. We seem to have two different traditions co-existing in the United States that did not blend for a period of hundreds of years.”

The origin of humans in the Americas has long suggested early migration out of Siberia and eastern Asia, very possibly across a temporary land bridge between Russia and Alaska.

In more recent years, Jenkins’ University of Oregon colleague Jon Erlandson has been building evidence — a lot of it emerging from the Channel Islands off California — of a Late Pleistocene sea-going people following a “kelp highway” from Japan to Kamchatka, along the south coast of Beringia and Alaska, then southward down the Northwest Coast to California.

Kelp forests are rich in seals, sea otters, fish, seabirds, and shellfish such as abalones and sea urchins.

Looking up to the Paisley Caves entrances during fieldwork in summer 2009.

Looking up to the Paisley Caves entrances during fieldwork in summer 2009. Kolby Schnelli

The new paper does not address the routes early migrants may have taken, but the additional evidence found in the DNA of the coprolites continues to point to Siberia-east Asian origins.

Again, as in 2008, the human mitochondrial DNA — passed on maternally — was from haplogroup A, which is common to Siberia and found, along with haplogroup B, in Native Americans today.

DNA cannot be directly dated with radiocarbon technology.

Instead, researchers extracted components of the diet eaten by the early inhabitants and washed potentially contaminating carbon out of the coprolites with distilled water. The digested fibers and carbon fraction were then radiocarbon-dated separately and the results compared.

“Through replicating data we were able to confirm the authenticity of what is the oldest direct evidence for humans in the Americas,” said co-author Michael “Michi” Hofreiter, a biologist in DNA laboratory of the University of York in the United Kingdom.

“The results of this study are exciting, because they show that the hypothesis that the Clovis people were the first Native Americans, which has been the prevailing idea for the last decades, is wrong. Now researchers need to come up with a new model for the settling of the Americas.”

The only significant aging difference in 12 such tests involved a camelid coprolite (ice-age llama) that was dated through its contents to about 14,150 years ago, while its water-soluble extract was dated to 13,200 years ago. This sample was found below a mud lens that contained one of the Western Stemmed points and human coprolites dated to between 13,000 and 13,200 years ago.

Looking out from inside the Paisley Caves, over the ancient lake bed to the west with the Cascade Range in the background.

Looking out from inside the Paisley Caves, over the ancient lake bed to the west with the Cascade Range in the background. Jim Barlow

The meticulous methodology used, Jenkins said, was done to address criticism that the 2008 findings may have been compromised by contamination, such as the leaching of later DNA from humans by water and rodent urine downward through the caves’ many layers.

The new evidence indicates this form of contamination is not a good explanation for the pre-Clovis human DNA.

“We continued to excavate Paisley Caves from 2009 through 2011,” the authors wrote in “Science”.

“To resolve the question of stratigraphic integrity, we acquired 121 new AMS [accelerator mass spectrometry] radiocarbon dates on samples of terrestrial plants, macrofossils from coprolites, bone collagen and water soluble extracts recovered from each of these categories. To date, a total of 190 radiocarbon dates have been produced from the Paisley Caves.”

The University of Oregon’s archaeological field school, operated by the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, returned to the Paisley Caves, under Jenkins’ direction, in 2002 to test conclusions made by anthropologist Luther Cressman.

Based on discoveries of artifacts he found in the caves in 1938-1940, Cressman claimed he had found evidence of Pleistocene occupation by humans.

That claim, based on technologies at the time, was not readily accepted. He died in April 1994, still claiming that he had proven his case.

The Paisley Caves are in the Summer Lake basin near Paisley, about 220 miles southeast of Eugene on the east side of the Cascade Range.

Sealed sample of human coprolite

Sealed sample of human coprolite

The complex includes eight westward-facing caves, all wave-cut shelters, on the highest shoreline of pluvial Lake Chewaucan, which rose and fell in periods of greater precipitation during the Pleistocene, or last glacial period.

“Following the recession of lake waters, the caves began to accumulate different kinds of terrestrial sediments,” said co-author Loren Davis, an archaeologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

“The caves contain a series of deposits that were created by the combination of wind, gravity, water-borne and biological processes.

“Archaeological evidence suggests that humans visited the cave many times, leaving behind material traces in the form of stone tools, lithic chipping debris, organic craft items, food wastes and even coprolites. These cultural materials were entombed largely as they were left behind as sediments continued to accumulate.”

The latest findings add to growing evidence of a hunting culture in North American around 13,000 years ago.

In 2008, a remarkable find of a cache comprising 83 stone implements within the city limits of Boulder City, Colorado, provided scientists with invaluable insights. Biochemical analysis showed that some of the 13,000-year-old implements were used to butcher ice-age camels and horses.

 

Co-authors with Jenkins, Davis and Hofreiter were: Thomas W. Stafford of University of Copenhagen in Denmark and Stafford Research Laboratories in Colorado; Paula F. Campos of the University of Copenhagen and the Science Museum of the University of Coimbra in Portugal; Bryan Hockett of the Bureau of Land Management, Nevada; George T. Jones of Hamilton College in New York; Linda Scott Cummings and Chad Yost of the PaleoResearch Institute in Colorado; Thomas J. Connolly of the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History; Robert M. Yohe II and Summer C. Gibbons of California State University; Johanna L.A. Paijmans of the University of York; Brian M. Kemp of Washington State University; Jodi Lynn Barta of WSU and Madonna University in Michigan; Cara Monroe of WSU and the University of California, Santa Barbara; and Maanasa Raghaven, Morten Rasmussen, M. Thomas P. Gilbert and Eske Willerslev of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen.

 

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