Shallow caves gape in gray rock like eyeholes in a mask. A whiff of sage rises from the scree below. Except for the wind blowing here a good five hours' drive southeast of Portland, all is silence. At the back of one cave, where the high ceiling slopes sharply to the ground, lie two discarded Bud Light beer cans. Have high school kids been drinking here? Whoever left the cans should have known better. And yet . ... people have been littering these caves for more than 14,000 years.
Right. That's not a misprint or exaggeration. Scientistis have dated coprolites — basically, mummified human feces — found here at Paisley to 14,500 years ago. That's way before archaeologists long believed — and some textbooks still state — that humans first settled North America.
When the last big glacier — which had covered what is now Seattle with 3,000 feet of ice — had just started pulling back to Canada. and the great Lake Missoula floods were still roaring periodically through Eastern Washington and the Columbia River Gorge, people were living right here, smelling the sage, looking out across the Summer Lake Basin in the afternoon sun.
People of the Clovis culture left distinctive fluted spear points all over what is now the United States — including Clovis, New Mexico, where they were first found, and East Wenatchee, where they were unearthed by two guys digging a trench through and orchard — from roughly 13,200 to 12,900 years ago. Generations of archaeologists believed that those were the first people in the Americas. But evidence has been building for years that Clovis wasn't first. Older sites of different cultures have been found in Pennsylvania, in Texas, in Chile.
Somebody drove a bone spear point into a mastodon in what is now Sequim, 13,800 years ago. And people were living in these Paisley caves before that.
Location of the Paisley Caves.Google Maps
Where did they come from? We don't know, but DNA extracted from the coprolites — the oldest human DNA found in this hemisphere — indicates, not surprisingly, that their ancestors lived in Asia. (There is none of the ethnic ambiguity that inspired neo-Vikings to try claiming Kennewick Man as one of their own.) Their stone points resemble those found on California's Channel Islands, but sturdier, as they'd have to be in order to survive contact with the rocks strewn around the Paisley site.
Conceivably, those Channel Islands people, whoever they were, paddled boats along the Siberian coast and the Bering land bridge from the Kuril Islands to Alaska, then down the edge of glaciated North America. Maybe some of them followed river valleys inland. (Analysis of Kennewick Man's skeleton suggests that 9,300 years ago, he made his way up the Columbia to the current site of Richland from the coast.) Maybe not, though.
But why, given a whole vacant continent, would anyone choose this desert, a couple hours southeast of Bend, as a place to hunt and gather? Today, you look out from the cave mouths across a sea of sage. You don't see trees. You don't see much grass. Far to the right, you see the gleam of shallow Summer Lake. The little Chewaucan River, which flows under Highway 31 at the hamlet of Paisley, is out of sight.
A view one of the Paisley Caves. Jim Barlow/University of Oregon
Looking from the cave mouths 14,000 years ago, you would have seen a less arid landscape, says University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis Jenkins, who has led the work there. You would have seen the river, larger and flowing through a channel about a mile away. And you would have seen big Lake Chewaucan of which Summer Lake is merely a remnant. There would have been sage, but there would also have been swaths of tall grass, possibly the stirrup-high varieties that impressed early European-American travelers before herds of sheep and cattle chewed the original grasslands down to their roots.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!