Unearthing, recovering relics of North American history
Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 01:01
Meter by meter, centimeter by centimeter, Loren Davis is making history. History doesn’t care that it’s 103 degrees in the shade, but for Davis, an associate professor of anthropology at Oregon State University, it’s common practice.
For more than a decade, Davis has been doing research in the lower Salmon River canyon studying evidence that could rewrite history books. Evidence from the Cooper’s Ferry site suggests humans walked on North American soil more than 1,000 years before previously speculated.
For the past three years, Davis has directed the Cooper’s Ferry Archaeological Field School, a summer class that takes 20 university students from around the country and brings them together to learn about what archaeologists really do.
Students who apply for the class come from all over the United States, from as far away as New York and Vermont.
“The things we find here are going to transform the way we think about how people came to America,” said Kendra Walters, a field student from the University of Oregon.
The Cooper’s Ferry site is rich with prehistoric stone tools such asblades, hammerstones, bifaces and projectile points, which are unearthed on a nearly daily basis as students patiently excavate with steady hands and bated breath.
But what makes the site particularly unusual and exciting is the type of artifacts that are found there.
It began in 1997 when Davis dug a test pit at the Cooper’s Ferry site based on the geologic history of the area. Davis unearthed what appeared to be a purposely dug weapons cache that contained projectile points that, when tested, were proven to be 13,000 old, 1,000 years older than the oldest artifact ever found in North America.
“This site is really on the cutting edge of the reassessment of how people came to North America in the first place,” said Ian Kretzler, a graduate student from Whitman College.
Artifacts such as the ones found at Cooper’s Ferry are now being found at many other archaeological sites around the west coast and Pacific Northwest.
Two years ago, Davis worked on another site in central Oregon with University of Oregon professor Dennis Jenkins. The site, known as Paisley Caves, turned out to contain more projectile points, and DNA evidence shows that the people who brought these points to that location were among the first people to come to North America.
Davis co-authored the paper that was ultimately published by Science Magazine, “the Oscars of the scientific world,” as Davis refers to it. The paper was released over the summer of 2012 and was accredited by many as the final nail in the coffin of the previous “Clovis first” hypothesis.
Currently, Davis and a team of graduate students from OSU are working on analyzing data from the field schools over the past few years, pouring over every single stone, piece of bone, stone flake or even bit of shell to make sure they can accurately put together what happened at this site more than 10,000 years ago.
“I think it’s the knowledge of knowing who we are and where we came from is a universal question,” Davis said. “It’s a question about all of us. We all have an innate curiosity to know where we came from and it’s a question about everyone.”
Note: Over the summer Hayden Wilcox was given the privilege to follow Dr. Davis and his crew out to the site as a video documentarian. For seven weeks he worked and lived with students and graduate students as an onsite cameraman to tell the story of Cooper’s Ferry. For more information, The Beaver News, KBVR’s TV news show, will run several video stories on different subjects of the field school. The videos will cover topics from everything to unpacking the dig site, to how an archeologist excavates, to a better look at the artifacts found at the site. The Beaver News will run eight different segments with one subject per episode for the next two weeks. The show can be found live on Comcast cable channel 26 and on YouTube the day after it airs at KBVR–TV/Beaver News.
Hayden Wilcox, KBVR news director