World / Science & Health

Ancient Oregon caves may upend understanding of humans in the Americas

Human waste in cave predates Clovis culture by about 1,000 years


A network of caves in rural Oregon may be the oldest site of human habitation in the Americas, suggesting that an ancient human population reached what is now the United States at the end of the last Ice Age, Oregon officials said on Friday.

That realization prompted the U.S. National Park service to add the Paisley Five Mile Point Caves to its list of nationally important archaeological and historical sites, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department said in a statement.

Only recently have researchers become convinced that humans lived at the Paisley caves a thousand years before the human settlement that is documented in sites first discovered in the 1920s near Clovis, New Mexico, said Dennis Jenkins, director of the University of Oregon Archaeology Field School, in the statement.

The “Clovis first” hypothesis holds that the distinctive Clovis projectile points found at multiple sites across the United States are signs of the first human settlements in North America, the statement said. The best estimate of the age of the earliest Clovis tools is 3,200 to 12,900 years ago.

But Jenkins’ team used radiocarbon dating to determine that more than 200 samples of human feces collected from the Paisley caves were deposited in the area 14,300 years ago, nearly 1,000 years before the human settlement evidenced in the Clovis era.

Jenkins said the test findings provide “significant new information regarding the timing and spread of the first settlers in the Americas,” suggesting that an ancient human population reached what is now the United States at the end of the last Ice Age.

In addition to biological samples, Jenkins’ team also found stones used to grind plant materials, woven plant fibers, modified animal bones and stemmed projectile points.

“The people living there 14,300 years ago were gathering and consuming aromatic roots, for which they would have needed special knowledge that would have developed over time,” according to the press release announcing the site’s placement on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, the Paisley caves are surrounded by sagebrush in a sparsely populated area of south-central Oregon. But researchers believe the site was once a grassy plain containing a lake and populated by camels, bison and waterfowl.

Archaeologists first excavated the Paisley caves in 1938. The University of Oregon’s current research effort at the site began in 2002.

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