Digging Deep into America’s Past

Fossils found in Oregon suggest that more than one culture developed in the Americas 13,000 years ago

July 18, 2012

These arrowheads were discovered in the Paisley Caves, in central Oregon.

Scientists have long believed that more than 13,000 years ago, people known as the Clovis were the first humans to arrive in North America. But the recent discovery of stone tools and human remains in Oregon’s Paisley Caves suggests that the Clovis people were not alone. Scientists now believe that there was another group of humans on the continent around the same time.

This is view from inside one of the Paisley caves.
This is view from inside one of the Paisley caves.

Journey to Discovery

Dennis Jenkins is an archeologist at the University of Oregon. He and his team began excavating the Paisley Caves, in central Oregon, in 2002. In 2008, the team announced the discovery of ancient human remains. The remains were preserved, Jenkins told TFK, “because the caves are so dry.” The archeologists used a technique called radiocarbon dating in order to determine the age of the fossils. They concluded that the deposits were as old as—and maybe even older than—the Clovis remains.

To be sure that this was a separate group of people from the Clovis, however, the archaeologists kept looking for more evidence. “The problem was that we didn’t have the mini artifacts to go with [our findings],” says Jenkins. “People questioned whether or not our findings were real.”

Between 2009 and 2011, the archeologists found what they were looking for: arrowheads that looked different from the Clovis points. While the Clovis points are big and have a distinct scar running up the middle of the blade, the tools found in the Oregon caves are small and narrow. Radiocarbon dating of the recently discovered tools revealed that they were more than 13,000 years old.

The Big Picture

Some scientists now believe there were at least two distinct groups of people who arrived in the Americas around 13,000 years ago. The differences seen in the stone tools of the two groups suggest that these two cultures developed separately from one another.

“We have more than a single cultural group on the landscape, and that is important because it helps us to open our eyes to the fact that we have missed things in the past,” Jenkins says. “This is just one more piece of the puzzle of how people got to North and South America.”

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