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Ancient Oregonians

Archaeologists recover oldest remains in North America near Summer Lake



Dr. Dennis Jenkins, senior staff archaeologist at the University of Oregon, likes to discover and document ancient life—really ancient life in Central and Eastern Oregon, dating back at least 14,500 years. At a recent public lecture at Bend's Old Stone Church, sponsored by the Oregon Natural Desert Association, Jenkins described the Paisley Caves site near Summer Lake in southeast Oregon. This is where he says Oregon archaeologists recovered the oldest directly dated human remains in the New World. "The Paisley Caves are the best carbon-dated site in North America," he says. The Monte Verde site in Chile is about the same age, but it may have an older component dating 18,000 years or more.

Mammoth and mastodon kill sites in the western Great Lakes region of Wisconsin date back approximately 13,000 years. Jenkins, who has done over 100 field investigations spanning a quarter of a century, also says he thinks he and his colleagues have "barely scratched the surface" in their discoveries.

Jenkins discussed an evolving Oregon landscape where climates have changed substantially over thousands of years. He describes a wet climate 9-10,000 years ago where lakes in the region were hundreds of feet deep. About 9,000 years ago those lakes began to dry up. About 6,000 years ago the waters came back, only to dry up again. He says this moist climate supported a great deal of plant life and that these early humans were highly knowledgeable about how to preserve and store roots, nuts, and berries to sustain them during the long winter months.

Migrating from Siberia, early humans encountered mammoths, camels, huge bison, and horses that were a staple of their diet along with smaller animals such as deer, antelope, and mountain sheep. Ancient tools discovered in the region include items such as a bear bone flesher used to remove flesh. However, the numbers of the largest animals began to drop, and they were almost non-existent beginning about 12,800 years ago.

Hunting and gathering was a continual process for their survival, and human populations increased over time. Where hunting grounds were once abundant, animal populations and other resources decreased because of more human pressure and climate changes. This led to changes in living situations in order to survive.

A noticeable change occurred beginning about 6,000 years ago when these early inhabitants began moving out of caves and closer to marsh areas where game and plants were found. The first rudimentary stone houses appeared. These houses often had their entries facing east, away from the prevailing southwestern winds. Evidence has been uncovered of food storage pits that could be defended. Early evidence of fishing, including stashes of dried Tui Chub which provided essential fat to their diets, has also been found. Trade routes were established. Beads and other items that were commonplace in Mexico have been found as far north as Oregon. With these changes, socialization also evolved. Smoking, using a form of "wild tobacco," became commonplace as did competitive games and other organized activities.

The Paisley Caves aren't the only well-documented archaeological site in southeastern Oregon. The Fort Rock site was first excavated by Luther Cressman and a University of Oregon field crew in 1938. Below a layer of volcanic ash from Mt. Mazama, they found hundreds of sandals made of sage brush which dated back 10,000 years. Nine miles south are the Connley Caves, which are a series of eight caves where signs of human existence have been found, including water fowl bones approximately 13,000 years old.

Jenkins says that there are opportunities for the general public to participate in the search and documentation of ancient life in Oregon. "The public can join amateur groups like the Archaeological Society of Central Oregon in Bend. These groups have paired up with professional archaeologists and are participating in conducting valuable research," he says.

For more information visit the Oregon Archaeological Society online:

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