The mystery of early Northwest peoples

Anthropologists speculate that south Oregon's "Western stemmed" culture could have been here prior to the Clovis.
Paisley Caves are between Albert Lake, above, and Summer Lake in Oregon.

Paisley Caves are between Albert Lake, above, and Summer Lake in Oregon. Travis S./Flickr

Fossilized poop. It's how we study our forefathers from 10,000 B.C.

Fossilized poop. It's how we study our forefathers from 10,000 B.C. Exeter Mogs

Clovis spear points

Clovis spear points Wikimedia Commons

We don't know who they were, but we know they were here before 10,000 B.C. They hunted camels in the lush grass of southern Oregon. They probably saw 12,000-foot Mount Mazama looming over the western horizon.

They lived here as early as members of the Clovis culture, named after a style of fluted stone projectile point first found around the start of the Great Depression near Clovis, New Mexico. Roswell, New Mexico, has its UFOs, and Clovis has its stone-age mammoth hunters. So do a lot of other places. By now, Clovis points have been found all over the continent, including East Wenatchee. For decades, archaeologists repeated the mantra "Clovis first." In other words, they assumed that the people who made those fluted points were the first human beings in the Americas.

But evidence has been mounting for years that Clovis wasn't first, that other people were here just as soon if not sooner. Some of the most compelling evidence has come from south-central Oregon's Paisley Caves. Until recently, though, some scientists raised legitimate questions about the dating of objects found at Paisley. This month, those questions were presumably laid to rest.

The precise dating of Western stemmed stone weapon points and accompanying coprolites — i.e., mummified turds — found in the Paisley Caves has received a lot of press. "Stone Tools Hint at Previously Unknown Ancient Culture in North America," proclaimed one headline

"Archaeological work in Oregon's Paisley Caves has found evidence that Western Stemmed projectile points — darts or thrusting spearheads — were present at least 13,200 years ago during or before the Clovis culture in western North America," said Science News. The magazine explained that 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. 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."

All this attention was stirred up by a paper that Dennis L Jenkins, a senior research associate at the University of Oregon's Museum of Natural and Cultural History, and many colleagues published in the July 13 issue of Science. The authors explained that "Western Stemmed projectile points were recovered in deposits dated to 11,070 to 11,340 (carbon 14-dated) years ago, a time contemporaneous with or preceding the Clovis technology. There is no evidence of diagnostic Clovis technology at the site. These two distinct technologies were parallel developments, not the product of a unilinear technological evolution.

This is stuff that Jenkins, who has been working at the Paisley Caves for years, figured out long ago. Coprolites that he found in 2002 and 2003 produced what seemed to be the oldest human DNA in the Americas, pre-dating Clovis.

But when Jenkins and colleagues published a paper in Science four years ago, other scientists raised questions about their findings. The dates had been startling, and the outside scientists wondered, among other things, if maybe the layers in the cave had been churned up. Or, they speculated, water might have leached newer DNA down to older layers so that the context made the coprolites seem older than they really were.

Jenkins' new paper addressed those questions. As he and his colleagues wrote in Science: "'Blind testing' analysis of coprolites by an independent laboratory confirms the presence of human DNA in specimens of pre-Clovis age." Shortly after the new Science article appeared, Jenkins said he thought that the 190 repetitions of carbon dating on which the article was based should satisfy the skeptics.

So who were these Western stemmed guys? No one really knows.

Jenkins said the DNA hasn't been analyzed enough to identify groups with common ancestors, but not enough to pinpoint the toolmakers' origins. Eventually, perhaps, we'll know exactly where they came from. But, Jenkins explained, doing a full analysis will be very expensive, and no one has paid for it yet.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jul 30, 9:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks so much for the overview of this emerging research. I've read bits and pieces about it for awhile now, and am glad to see it laid out here.

sandik

Posted Mon, Jul 30, 11:43 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Chasan's question, "were there even more" (ancient cultures in North America) is entirely legitimate.

For example, Washington state (and the Pacific Northwest coastal region in general) contains a compelling number of archaeological anomalies similar to those found east of the Mississippi River: cleft boulders aligned with standing stones; hollow mounds built of heaped rock; long trenches cut in the bedrock atop various mountains – most of these megalithic artifacts exhibiting astronomical orientation to the solstice positions of the sunrise and moonrise.

The evidence of this sort back East is of much more recent dates than the stemmed-point culture, has been carbon-14 dated to approximately 1000-2000 BCE and is strongly suggestive of extensive ancient European, mostly Bronze Age (and in some instances possibly Minoan) presence in North America. (For more on these discoveries, Google "New England Antiquities Research Association," without quotation marks.)

Thus the evidence here in Washington state – most of it in out-of-the way places that now because of the state's near-total closure of the back-country are no longer accessible – may be part of the same cultural complex. Or it may be proof of a hitherto-unknown indigenous culture that reached comparable levels of sophistication.

The mountaintop trenches, for instance, seem unique to this region. The approximately 1x18-meter trench a colleague and I discovered, photographed and mapped in 1977 is aligned with the crest of an adjacent mountain such that the trench's main axis points to the summer solstice sunrise. Each of its peripheral axes, the two edges of the trench, indicate the extreme points where the winter solstice moon would rise over the shoulders of the same mountain. These moonrise positions are separated by 19 degrees, the result of the 19-year arc spanned by the moon's position relative to earth. The fact the trench seems to embody this knowledge suggests the sophistication of its builders even as the old-growth stump in its midst -- an ancient tree cut during the original logging c. 1880-1890 -- indicates the trench's great age. (I can only approximate the trench's dimensions because all my notes, drawings and photographs of the place were destroyed in the ruinous fire described below, but the solar and lunar azimuths of its alignments were confirmed by a tripod-mounted pathfinder compass accurate to 10 minutes of a degree.)

At least as compelling as the trench itself is the story of how we found it. I had extended the solar and lunar azimuths of the first anomalous site I discovered, a double mound ringed by standing stones near the headwaters of the West Fork of the Foss River. I drew the resultant lines on acetate overlays atop 1:250,000 topographical maps of Washington, and we – my colleague and I – explored wherever those lines crossed significant terrain features. I came upon the mound itself while trout fishing in 1972.

Unfortunately all this research and all the subsequent work on this project – exploration of 30-something possible sites, sufficient evidence to warrant photographing, mapping and opening of descriptive files on a dozen – was lost in the same disastrous housefire that in 1983 literally destroyed all my life's work: two books in progress (one about these archaeological anomalies); clip-files, award certificates and journals dating from my 16th year; photography dating from my 12th birthday when my father gave me my first camera – all of it reduced to smoke and ash.

But what is even more unfortunate is that U.S. archaeologists are effectively prohibited from investigating these sites. The professional archaeologists I questioned about these matters during the '70s and pre-fire '80s, when I was still a member of the working press, all admitted it is professional death even to acknowledge such evidence exists. Why? Probably because U.S. archaeological theory is forever wed to capitalism and its concept of “growth,” which includes the spurious notion human history is a story of linear progress fueled by relentless for-profit exploitation of humans and natural resources – a Big Lie disproven by the (non-exploitative) achievements of our non-capitalist (and quite possibly non-patriarchal) ancestors.

Posted Tue, Jul 31, 2:52 p.m. Inappropriate

This was a genuinely interesting addition to a fascinating article, until the Marxist dogma snuck into the narrative. What a shame.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Jul 30, 12:10 p.m. Inappropriate

I have unwittingly assumed that the "stemmed" points were identified by the narrow part of the point that presumably was laced to the spear shaft. Pictures I have seen elsewhere show the Paisley point as lacking a "stem". So how were they fasted to the (speculated) 1/4" shaft? or did I just misunderstand the photos? and how do you bring down a camel with one of these darts? sounds like a time-consuming project.

kieth

Posted Thu, Aug 2, 5:41 p.m. Inappropriate

Very interesting piece.

@LorenBliss: Which parts of Washington's backcountry are "no longer accessible," and why? Do you mean no longer accessible except on foot?

rjudd

Posted Fri, Aug 3, 2:22 p.m. Inappropriate

In response to rjudd: normally I don't revisit comments this long after the fact, but the ever-more-difficult Crosscut software brought me here, hence I discovered your question.

The short answer is that all the access roads are gated closed, often as far as 20 or 30 miles from the sites themselves. Even in the limited number of places where access on foot or horseback is permitted, the time/distance requirements are prohibitive save to the horse aristocracy – those with enough personal power to have suitably flexible work schedules and adequate recreational time and sufficient wealth to afford horses, pack mules, wranglers, farriers, horse trailers, pastureland, etc.

Factor in the chore of backpacking with the added burden of essential gear – close to an additional 50-75 pounds of camera bodies and lenses, film, compasses, Tiltall tripods, topographical maps, drawing books, drawing supplies, a tape recorder for dictating on-site observations, recording tapes, measuring instruments, probably much more I've forgotten (all this plus the normal requirements of four or five nights of backpack camping) – and any exploration of the sort my colleague and I did via long drives and relatively short hikes during weekends in the 1970s and early 1980s is impossible, even for someone in the best of health.

Backpacking in mountain country – something I formerly did a lot of to access quality trout fishing both here and in the Appalachians – you figure you're doing well to make 10 miles a day (not coincidentally, the distance required to get from Adirondack shelter to Adirondack shelter on the Appalachian Trail). Hence to do by backpack the sort of exploration we did by vehicle, you need effectively unlimited discretionary time – something only the One Percenters are allowed in today's United States.

For example, the logging road-complex via which we found the trench is now gated closed about 21 miles from the trench itself, never mind the roads, up steep grades all the way to the site, are still regularly used by loggers.

By far the greater percentage of Washington back country is privately owned – a situation unique in the United States. Thus the trench (and indeed most of the other sites) are on timber-company property. And such closures are now the rule. During the second Booth Gardner term (1988-1992), the anti-gun, anti-hunting, anti-fishing Democrats stopped enforcing the c. 1907 covenant that required the timber companies to keep their holdings open to the public, and the closures quickly followed.

As I was told the story in 1978 by State Sen. Frank Warnke (D-Federal Way), the covenant had been negotiated by the timber barons to block the Teddy Roosevelt Administration's seizure of their lands as national forests. That's why Washington state – most of its politicians then as now eager to kowtow to Big Money – has such relatively small public acreage.

As a result, none of these archaeological sites – and for that matter none of the Washington rivers and creeks I formerly fished nor any of the lands here I formerly hunted – are accessible on foot. The closures are posted “no trespassing” and exclude everybody except the loggers who have gate keys.

A major (Democrat-applauded) result has been a staggering decrease in resident hunting and fishing license sales – a story state bureaucrats have suppressed, the cover-up enabled by mass media's refusal to investigate either the closures or their fiscal impact.

Not that I will ever again in this lifetime be able to fish, hunt or search for archaeological anomalies. I'm increasingly crippled – now officially disabled – by deteriorating spinal injuries inflicted in 1978 by one of Washington state's obscenely coddled, defiantly habitual drunken drivers.

This dipsomaniacal sociopath already had 19 DWI arrests, every one either dismissed or reduced to physical control, before he lost control of his speeding 442 Oldsmobile, skidded across four lanes of rainswept traffic, reversed direction and then accelerated – yes, accelerated – down 50 yards of sidewalk to broadside me in my new Honda Civic. Trapped between other cars in a shopping center driveway, I was a stationary target.

It was Godzilla versus Bambi: the Oldsmobile was undamaged. So was its drunken driver – he blew a .32, this at 4:30 in the afternoon. But my Honda, like my spine, was totaled. The cops said it was a miracle I wasn't killed.

The drunk, a sneering thug who witnesses said lost control of the Oldsmobille because he was trying to drive and beat his wife at the same time, was arrested and jailed on charges of DWI, assaulting an officer, obstructing an officer, intimidating witnesses and attempted bribery of witnesses. But his DWI was (again) reduced to physical control, and all the other charges were predictably dismissed: such is “justice” in the Evergreen State – ever green with the greenbacks of bribery and the reeking mildew of corruption.

Thanks to that drunk, these days I can't carry a fully loaded backpack 20 yards – never mind 20 miles. Without the road access denied by the closures, I can't even get near enough to any of these places to show somebody else the way in.

Though my site-data included grid coordinates to the nearest 10 meters – information I would gladly share today – every bit of it (an entire drawer in a four-drawer filing cabinet) was destroyed in that 1983 fire. The one site that was not in the back country – a huge petroglyph-covered, sphinx-like boulder near Des Moines I discovered by following the aforementioned alignments – has since been destroyed by developers, who dynamited the boulder into fragments.

Indeed it was during my effort to save that boulder (1977-1978) I discovered the breathtaking fear and hostility with which capitalist-sponsored archaeologists suppress such evidence.

Posted Sat, Aug 4, 12:16 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for that, and very sorry about your injury. I assumed you were referring to the road closures, but wondered if there was some other backcountry prohibition to which you were referring.

rjudd

Posted Sun, Aug 5, 10:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Many of those artifacts came during the War on Camels, when some tribal members decided that people were sprawling into the countryside.

Villagists proposed a Light Cart system of linked wooden trams that could be used to ferry people from vertically dense 4 story longhouses to the central market pace.

jabailo

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