Script from Oregon Public Television program June 30 on the Paisley Caves discoveries
- From: Jack Linthicum <jacklinthicum@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Tue, 1 Jul 2008 11:58:19 -0700 (PDT)
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Ore. Discovery Challenges Beliefs About First Humans
Until recently, most scientists believed that the first humans came to
the Americas 13,000 years ago. But new archaeological findings from a
cave in Oregon are challenging that assumption. Lee Hochberg of Oregon
Public Television reports on the controversial discovery.
Archaeologist Dennis Jenkins
National Science Foundation
LEE HOCHBERG, NewsHour correspondent: What archaeologist Dennis
Jenkins found in the Paisley Caves in south central Oregon may turn on
its head the theory of how and when the first people came to North
Many scientists believe humans first came to this continent 13,000
years ago across a land bridge from Asia and they started the so-
called Clovis culture. But Jenkins says they may have been living in
these caves 1,000 years earlier, toward the end of the last ice age.
DENNIS JENKINS, archeologist: We certainly knew that people had lived
in the caves, but we did not have adequate dating to prove that they
were here at the end of the ice age.
LEE HOCHBERG: In 2002, he and his students at the University of Oregon
began excavating the caves looking for proof. They discovered 14,000-
year-old camel bones and signs they'd been butchered by humans. And
then, they found artifacts of the humans themselves.
DENNIS JENKINS: It even includes on the top of it what's probably a
chunk of feces.
LEE HOCHBERG: Although it was hardly the stuff of Indiana Jones.
DENNIS JENKINS: We were looking and hoping, of course, to find spear
points, evidence of their technology. Instead, what we found was the
perfect human signature, their coprolites. It was, if you will, the
LEE HOCHBERG: Coprolites are an archeology term for fossilized feces.
Jenkins says they're from humans, and they're more than 14,000 years
DENNIS JENKINS: So this was the evidence we had dug all summer to get
LEE HOCHBERG: It's not the first time this area of Oregon has given up
clues suggesting humans were here earlier. Seventy years ago, another
Oregon archaeologist, Luther Cressman, found these sandals in the cave
woven from sagebrush bark.
LUTHER CRESSMAN, archaeologist: Now, the interesting thing here is
that we have a toe flap. The toe fit in here.
LEE HOCHBERG: And he found stone tools that carbon dating suggested
were from the Pleistocene age, more than 13,000 years old.
LUTHER CRESSMAN: And to find these things down here at Fort Rock Cave,
at 13,200 years ago, means that the people were down in the great
basin before the last glaciation. That's why these things are so
Human diet clues from DNA tests
LEE HOCHBERG: But other scientists said the evidence wasn't definitive
enough to prove humans were here at that time. And instead, the theory
of the land bridge took hold.
DENNIS JENKINS: I'm going to pull it out. It looks just like what it
LEE HOCHBERG: In 2004, Jenkins and his colleagues took their new
evidence, the coprolites, to the university lab to see if modern
science could offer more answers. They found the coprolites reflected
a human diet.
DENNIS JENKINS: Here we have bone, some hair, vegetation, material.
Those are all good indicators that it's a human coprolite.
LEE HOCHBERG: Carbon dating showed three of the coprolites, and the
animal bones found with them were 14,300 years old. And DNA tests
showed six samples with distinct markers of ancient Native Americans.
Three hundred additional coprolites the team recovered are now being
analyzed. Jenkins says he's confident he's found the earliest evidence
of humans in North America, who look like either current Native
Americas or like Paleo-Indian people.
DENNIS JENKINS: They were probably somewhat shorter than we are, 5'5",
5'6", perhaps. They would have been wearing clothing like we are that
was made out of hides or perhaps bull rush.
We found little tiny threads that were .04 millimeters, I mean, so
tiny they're as small as the threads in your shirt. Clearly, people
were sewing their clothing, form-fitting clothing just like we have,
shirts, pants, those kinds of things, perhaps moccasins.
LEE HOCHBERG: And he says their coprolites show they ate desert
parsley, which grows six inches under the ground.
DENNIS JENKINS: The fact that they were exploiting that plant just
like the Native Americans of this region were doing at later times
tells us that they were very well-adapted to their environment. These
were not explorers. These were people who were living in this area.
They were at home here.
LEE HOCHBERG: And perhaps most importantly, they would have had to
have come here in a different way than long believed. Since at that
time the continent was covered under an ice sheet miles thick, land
travel from the land bridge south would have been impossible.
The early humans would have had to come by boat to the Pacific coast
and then traveled inland through a strip of warmer swampland. Early
peoples are thought to have arrived in Australia by boat, but it's a
new idea for America.
Coprolites' importance debated
LEE HOCHBERG: And yet, for all of the excitement, the findings are
controversial. Skeptics argue that human DNA found in the 14,000-year-
old specimens may have actually been deposited here thousands of years
Anthropologist Gary Haynes of the University of Nevada-Reno says the
coprolites might, indeed, be from the ice age, but actually come from
wolves or dogs, and then been contaminated later by early Indians.
GARY HAYNES, anthropologist: Native Americans have lived in this rock
shelter for thousands of years afterwards. There could have been
contamination through the dirt, leaching DNA. Native Americans have
been living, and eating, and defecating, and urinating, and sweating,
and just living in that shelter for thousands of years.
LEE HOCHBERG: And Haynes is bothered by the lack of evidence of a
broader society. After all, with Clovis culture, scientists discovered
distinctive spear points next to mammoth bones in many locations
across the American West, Mexico and Central America. Why not for the
GARY HAYNES: Where are the stone tools? Where's the thing that
everybody in the rest of the world is doing and making at 14,000 years
ago? That's what's missing.
It's a coherent set of artifacts that nobody would doubt were made by
people, which is what the coprolite sites don't have.
LEE HOCHBERG: Jenkins answers that he conducted protein tests on the
coprolites that verify they're human, not canine. And he says with new
forensic science, finding spear points might not be as important as it
used to be.
DENNIS JENKINS: We don't know what their spear points are yet, but
that doesn't mean that they weren't here. We've got their coprolites.
We've got their cells.
LEE HOCHBERG: They're just as good as tools?
DENNIS JENKINS: They are the ultimate artifact, in my opinion. I've
really come to like coprolites.
LEE HOCHBERG: Jenkins believes his theory, published recently in
Science magazine, will become widely accepted, but it will take a few
years to erode archaeology's deeply entrenched Clovis-first bias.
DENNIS JENKINS: For 60 or more years, we have had the concept that
Clovis was first. And it made such a nice package that it was very
believable. And the Clovis door has now been jarred apart. And if this
evidence holds and is not disproven, then there's no way you're going
to close it again.
LEE HOCHBERG: Jenkins is going to gather more Paisley Cave samples
this fall and try to link his discovery to other pre-Clovis finds in
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