An Oregon cave: Home for our first Northwest communities?

Scientists have uncovered evidence that pushes back our idea of the earliest human activity.
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Paisley Caves are between Albert Lake, above, and Summer Lake in Oregon.

Scientists have uncovered evidence that pushes back our idea of the earliest human activity.

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.

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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.

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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.

You might have seen one-humped camels, horses, pronghorn moving through the grass. You might have seen a lion. Or a mastodon.

The people who lived at Paisley clearly hunted two extinct species of horses and one of camels, Jenkins says. Whether they killed a mastodon or merely found a nice fresh carcass isn't clear, but however they acquired it, a mastodon left traces on their tools.

Could those stone age hunters have killed anything that large? Sure. They would probably have fastened their small obsidian points to darts, Jenkins explains. They may have made slender, 4-foot shafts of the willow that grew along the river banks and lake shores. A hunter would have used an atlatl, or spear thrower, to increase the leverage of his throwing arm. That bone point in Sequim was driven right into a mastodon rib. A modern researcher using an atlatl hurled a spear through a junk car door. Their technology would have been more than good enough.

So would their knowledge of the plants that grew around them. These people ate grain and pollen, which they harvested from low grasses. Recognizing what was good to eat and when it should be harvested required a very sophisticated knowledge of the landscape, Jenkins says.

That knowledge would have enabled them to travel widely across the land. They would have found plenty of water, plenty of game. And they would have seen very few other humans. Yet, Jenkins explains, to avoid inbreeding, they must have known where in that vast landscape other little bands of humans could be found.

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University of Oregon scientist Dennis Jenkins and a colleague during 2009 field work at the Paisley Caves. University of Oregon

They would have trekked northwest up into the Fort Rock Basin, where sage-fiber sandals have been dated at 10,000 years. From Fort Rock and other places they could have looked west and seen, silhouetted against the setting sun, the snow-capped 12,000-foot volcanic cone of Mount Mazama. The mountain blew up 7,700 years ago, leaving the caldera that has since filled with the unearthly blue waters of Crater Lake. Those people knew a western skyline that has vanished as completely as the species of horses and camels on which they fed.

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The entrances to the Paisley Caves (center). Jim Barlow/University of Oregon

What did they talk about? We'll never know. We do know that people who lived here and elsewhere in southern Oregon 7,000 years later witnessed the eruption of Mount Mazama. Their artifacts have been found beneath a layer of Mazama ash. And they passed down oral histories of the eruption into the mid-19th century.

University of Washington geologist David Montgomery writes in The Rocks Don't Lie of "a Klamath Indian story, recorded in 1865 [that] provides a compelling eyewitness account of the eruption of Mount Mazama." Maybe the people at Paisley passed down stories of paddling from Asia to North America, then traveling south along a wall of glacial ice. Maybe, listening to those stories, their children imagined what it felt like to be the first people in a New World.


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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.