Evidence Supports Earlier Date for People in North America – New York Times

Evidence Supports Earlier Date for People in North America – New York Times


Exploring Paisley Caves in the Cascade Range of Oregon, archaeologists have found a scattering of human coprolites, or fossil feces. The specimens preserved 14,000-year-old human protein and DNA, which the discoverers said was the strongest evidence yet of the earliest people living in North America.

Other archaeologists agreed that the findings established more firmly than before the presence of people on the continent at least 1,000 years before the well-known Clovis people, previously thought to be the first Americans. Recent research at sites in Florida and Wisconsin also appears to support the earlier arrivals, and a campsite in Chile indicates migration deep into South America by 14,600 years ago.

The find was published online Thursday by the journal Science, www.sciencexpress.org.

The cave explorations in 2002 and 2003 were led by Dennis L. Jenkins, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon. The primary DNA analysis was conducted by Eske Willerslev and M. Thomas P. Gilbert of the Center for Ancient Genetics at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

Why, that’s my alma mater in the news! At one time, I flirted with the idea of majoring in archeology or anthropology, but was put off by a number of factors that in retrospect were meaningless.

Here’s the official description of the Paisley Caves dig.  Naturally, the New York Times article and BoingBoing focus on the “Hey! It’s ancient poo!” aspect. Both articles are headed by a photograph of some human coprolites – that’s fossilized shit to you – but the description is more excited about the presence of large animal fossils, although they’re a bit cautious. A previous excavation in the 30’s wasn’t conducted very carefully, leading to wild claims of humans and extinct mammals living at the same time, so this excavation is taking a lot of care to ensure that cultural and animal remains found together really do belong together in the same context.

Interesting reading, although I’m not current with some of the terminology. Dates are given like this: “ca. 12,000 to 14,340 cal. BP.” I think that means “circa (around the time of) 12,000 to 14,340 calendar years before present.” This gets avoids things dating “BC – before Christ” or “BCE – before Christian Era” and all the religious and mathematical issues that arise from that system. “Debitage” apparently means all the waste material produced when shaping and shipping stone tools.

I totally get what they’re saying about that, because I’ve actually attempted to shape chert or other flakeable stone into primitive tools (I really was a weird tomboy). And as a kid, I went on arrowhead hunting trips with my “Uncle Chuck” and his collector friends in Grand Junction.  One place we visited was a rock shelter that had been used as a lookout, somewhere in the back country behind the Colorado National Monument. It was a short scramble up a talus slope, and consisted of a shallow cave in a sandstone wall, with some petroglyphs visible higher up, and a lot of rockfall where big chunks of former cave roof came down. Farther up, there was a little alcove arch that went completely through the narrow wall, so it truly was a great place to sit, make arrows and arrowheads, and watch for game or enemies. There were a couple of grooves in the floor where supposedly the watchers had straightened arrows, or sharpened the blunt wooden ends before installing the chipped points. We didn’t find much that day, but it was really fascinating.  I was all of about… 9 years old, as Pop was still alive then.

Yeah, I wish I’d done more in college with it, but then my life now would have turned out totally differently, so I’m content to just be an armchair enthusiast. Yeah, the fossilized poop story is interesting, but there’s a lot more to  it than just that.

By the way, the collective noun for ancient shit appears to be “a scattering of scat.”

[tags]BoingBoing, NYT, coprolites, fossilized poo, scat, archeology, Oregon[/tags]

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