Lost civilization along West Coast? New evidence says yes

New research pushes back human society in Washington and elsewhere farther in the past than thought. And it seems to wipe away the idea that the Clovis people were the first in North America.

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Clovis spear points

New research pushes back human society in Washington and elsewhere farther in the past than thought. And it seems to wipe away the idea that the Clovis people were the first in North America.

It may not be Atlantis, but evidence of a lost civilization probably lies beneath the waves all along the Washington coast — in fact, all along the Pacific coast from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

A recently announced discovery of stone tools on California's northern Channel Islands, just across the Santa Barbara Channel from the city of Santa Barbara, may tell us a good deal about what that civilization did.

An archaeological team led by the University of Oregon's Jon Erlandson and the Smithsonian Institution's Toren Rick has reported finding dozens of delicate stone projectile points with long stems They have found the points amid bones of seals, birds and fish. The layers of intact soil have allowed them to confidently date the finds. ScienceDaily reported that the points provide “[e]vidence for a diversified sea-based economy among North American inhabitants dating from 12,200 to 11,400 years ago.” Human remains dating back ever farther, to at least 13,000 years before the present, have also been found on the Channel Island of Santa Rosa.

That makes the people who fashioned those points and used them on the northern Channel Islands lying 10 to 60 miles offshore contemporaries of the Clovis people, whose distinctive fluted points have been found over much of the United States — including a site in East Wenatchee. The Clovis people were long thought to be the first human beings in North America.

But these were not Clovis points, and they were presumably not made by Clovis people. Clovis points do not have the long stems. And Clovis points do not have the delicacy; they can be beautiful, and they obviously reflect a long history of craftsmanship, but they are not as thin. Besides, Clovis points are often found with the bones of mammoths and other big Ice Age survivors, for which a hunter would want a pretty sturdy spear.

Erlandson says the first archaeologist who described one of the Channel Islands points viewed it "as 'entirely too delicate' [for hunting] and he claimed it must be ceremonial.” Looking at a single point in isolation, that may have been plausible, but Erlandson explained, “there's enough of them that they can't have been [merely] ceremonial.”

Erlandson assumes the delicate points, with their thin stone and tiny barbs, were designed for hunting in the sea. It's not only a matter of what the hunters might have been aiming at. It's also a matter of what they would have hit when they missed their targets. If you're throwing a spear over water and you miss, it lands in the water. If you miss on land, it's likely to hit a rock. A delicate point wouldn't last long.

Inland, where similar stemmed points have been found, they've been more sturdily built. That stemmed design “is the diagnostic for a projectile point,” explains University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis Jenkins, who has excavated south central Oregon's Paisley Caves. Stemmed points similar to — although thicker than — those found on the Channel Islands have turned up at Paisley, too. The workmanship is similar. They are pressure flaked, rather than flaked by percussion. “In my opinion,” Jenkins says, those points represent a culture “at least as old as Clovis.”

The existence of the Channel Islands points isn't news. A century and a half ago, Erlandson says, people brought in herds of sheep, which denuded the landscape, exposing the ground everywhere. “Everything was just lying there on the surface,” Erlandson says. And everywhere, people found the points. But nobody realized they were old. Everyone assumed they were recent.

What Erlandson and his colleagues have done is to find them buried beneath intact layers of soil, providing an archaeological context. On Santa Cruz, that context dates them at 8,000 years, Erlandson says. On San Miguel, it's 8,500. And on Santa Rosa, it's 12,000. There's not much doubt. They've found points there in two-and-one-half meters of finely statified soil. By now, “we've got great context,” Erlandson says.

There is still every reason to believe that the people who inhabited western North America 13,000 years ago were descendants of those who followed the Bering land bridge from northeast Asia to present-day Alaska. They found a continent the northern part of which was largely covered by ice. For yeaers, people have figured that the Clovis people — or those who became the Clovis people — followed an ice-free corridor down along the Rocky Mountains. Now, it seems that some — and perhaps all — of the earliest inhabitants came down the coast. It was not the coast we know today, but the coast that was flooded when the ice melted and sea level rose.

As a result, evidence of their passage has been hard to come by. But the old coastline, the old river mouths and hills are still there, underwater, waiting to be found. And they have been. Daryl W. Fedje and Heiner Josenhans used high-resolution sonar to map the seabed of southern Juan Perez Sound, between the Queen Charlotte Islands and mainland British Columbia. The sonar “reveals a drowned landscape,” the scientists wrote, “a landscape dominated by alluvial fans, delta plains, and meandering and migrating river systems.”

That’s not all. In this “drowned landscape,” they found “tree stumps and shellfish-rich paleobeaches.” The beaches were full of butter clams, littleneck clams, bentnose clams, bay mussels — all food on which small groups of people migrating down the coast could have dined very well, indeed.

Did anyone take advantage of the shellfish buffet? Evidently, someone did. “A stone tool encrusted with barnacles and bryozoa was recovered from a drowned delta flood plain now 53 m. below mean sea level,” Fedje and Josenhans wrote. “This is the first tangible evidence that the formerly subaerial broad banks of the western North American Continental Shelf may have been occupied by humans in earliest Holocene and possibly late-glacial time.”

But such evidence has been hard to come by. As the University of Oregon's Jenkins explains, the research that produced it was downright brilliant — and really expensive. It hasn't been repeated. But not all of the old coastal environment lies underwater. The Channel Islands were larger then and stood beside a narrower and shallower channel, but they were still islands. Now, they are not only accessible; they have intact layers of soil that allow archaeologists to date artifacts found on them.

The Clovis people vanished about 12,900 years ago. Another University of Oregon archaeologist, Douglas Kennett — one of Erlandson's co-authors on the report about the Channel Islands points — has suggested that that the Clovis people vanished because a meteor or a shower of meteor pieces striking the earth accelerated the melting of the Laurentide ice sheet, which triggered a flow of meltwater that disrupted the Atlantic conveyor, the ocean current that keeps northern North American relatively warm. This, in turn triggered the thousand-year cooling. A layer of tiny diamonds too unusual to be explained by anything but meteor impact coincides exactly with the Clovis disappearance. Kennett's theory — based partly on work that he and his father, University of California Santa Barbara paleoclimatoligist James Kennett, have done on the Channel Islands — has been widely reported, but it is not yet generally accepted.

Should we think of Clovis people and whoever made those long-stemmed points as two cultures? Erlandson thinks so. “I certainly expected that we would find some Clovis points” on the Channel Islands, Erlandson says. “We haven't.” And yet in the 1980s, he himself found a Clovis point just on the other side of the channel. “They were there,” he says, just not in the same spot. The two cultures evidently existed side-by-side.

Erlandson says that we've been assuming for so long that Clovis was the first culture in the New World that it's been hard to accept the evidence that other people were here first. “People have just assumed [that other artifacts] were younger than Clovis because of those charts we've been looking at all these years.” But since the world of archaeology has accepted the fact that people somehow reached the site of Monte Verde, in Chile, roughly 14,500 years ago — before Clovis people showed up in what is now the U.S., the “Clovis first” theory has been harder to sustain. Now, other evidence of pre-Clovis people is turning up. But Monte Verde “really turned the tide for the coastal migration theory,” Erlandson says.

Archaeologists Charlotte Beck and Tom Jones of Hamilton College have already suggested that Clovis and the coastal culture were separate, but that as coastal people moved inland and Clovis people moved toward the west coast, they met. Erlandson says that “if I were to go way off” into speculation, he'd say that when the coastal people reached the isthmus of Panama, some kept going all the way south to Patagonia, while others turned north and east, and made their way into what is now the eastern United States, where they ultimately developed the Clovis culture. Therefore, Erlandson imagines, when the coastal people encountered Clovis people, they were meeting their own descendants.

They may have come together in central Oregon. A little north northwest of Paisley, at Fort Rock, where Jenkins worked for 14 years — and where sagebrush sandals were dated at 12,000 years, making them the oldest such artifacts found in the Americas — Jenkins says there is “evidence for both stemmed points as well as Clovis points."

Whoever the coastal people were, they clearly knew how to build and use boats. Even 12,000 years ago, Erlandson says, the Santa Barbara Channel would seldom have been less than 10 kilometers across, and it would presumably have been as treacherous as it is today. And why not assume those people came from a maritime culture that was already old and established? Erlandson notes that people in boats reached the Kuril Islands, strung between the northern tip of Hokkaido and the tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula, 25,000 years ago. Why couldn't they have paddled north to Kamchatka, followed the Siberian and Alaskan coasts around the Bering Sea and made their way down the coast of the Americas? If they did, then by the time they crossed over to this side of the Pacific, they would have been a maritime people for at least 10,000 years.

Erlandson has written about a “kelp highway” around the Pacific Rim, along which early humans may have found plenty of good eating on fish and sea mammals. Whether or not they consciously followed the kelp doesn't much matter, he says. The resources would have been there. As would familiarly coastal terrain with no big barriers — certainly nothing like the mountains and deserts they would have encounered if they had set out overland.

But why would people used to the riches of the kelp highway have settled in the desert at Paisley, Oregon? Twelve thousand years ago, it wasn't a desert. There's “good evidence that the lakes were up substantially,” Jenkins says, “and there was a river flowing across the plain probably within a mile” of the caves. “If we were standing at the caves looking out,” he imagines, “we would have seen horses, camels, probably bison, ... the pronghorn.” In addition, the plain was covered with edible grass. All in all, it was “probably the best ecology you could have to make a relatively easy living.”

Why have we found evidence of the coastal people in so few places, not only along the old submerged coast itself, but also — assuming they  followed the rivers inland as Jenkins believes — in places like interior Washington and Oregon? “Nature has really done us in,” Jenkins explains. On the Columbia Plateau, the ice age floods unleashed by repeated melting of ice dam at Lake Missoula scoured the landscape clean. In Oregon, there were no big floods, but millennia of erosive weather left artifacts at the surface, with no geological context that enables archaeologists to date them. Paisley is therefore highly unusual.

And it has yielded highly unusual finds. Coprolites — i.e., mummified turds — found there have yielded the oldest human DNA found anywhere on the continent, dating back 14,500 years.

DNA found in descendants of indigenous people living from southeast Alaska to Tierra del Fuego seems to confirm the theory of coastal migration. The same unusual genetic variations have been found at points all down the coast. A recent CBC documentary on the coastal migration theory showed a map of the Americas with the places this DNA has been found marked by a series of red dots all the way down the coast. Those red dots, Erlandson says, match almost exactly the sites at which stemmed points have been found, too.

The Channel Islands discoveries add another piece to a more and more elaborate mosaic. So far, the evidence doesn't really prove how people first arrived in the Americas. But it does help prove that the old theory was wrong.

“We know now that Clovis wasn't first,” Erlandson says. “We have to find out what was.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.