written by Kevin Max
In 1937, Luther Cressman, credited as being the founder of Oregon anthropology, first excavated the Paisley Caves, acting on the tip of Walter Perry, a local who knew a woman who had been digging there for artifacts. The Paisley Caves are a system of eight caves north of the town of Paisley at the top of the Great Basin. At this point, no human remains had been found that dated beyond the Clovis era (13,500-12,800 years ago). Clovis people were believed to have been the first inhabitants of the New World of the Western Hemisphere, and all Native Americans in North and South America were their descendents. In 1940, Cressman and his crews found camel, bison and horse bones near human artifacts that they thought were as old or older than the Clovis era. But because of Cressman’s flawed methods, a shadow of doubt was cast on his findings at the Paisley Caves for decades and beyond his death in 1994.
In 2002, Dr. Dennis Jenkins, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon, returned to the Paisley Caves to test Cressman’s controversial theory that humans were living alongside camels, horses and bisons at that time in the Northern Great Basin. Jenkins, along with the UO archaeological field school, excavated the caves, practicing the most rigorous field methods, and made their own discovery—bones of camels, horses, bison and an extinct artiodactyl alongside human feces that all radiocarbon dated to around 14,280 years old. Not only had Jenkins and his crew vindicated the earlier work of Cressman, they had found and directly dated the oldest human remains (DNA) in the Western Hemisphere.
Jenkins, who got his undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, spent a lot of his adult life on archaeological projects in the Mojave Desert, before returning to Oregon for his doctorate. He is a senior staff archaeologist at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon.
Outside of purely academic circles, Jenkins’ findings have been celebrated with film segments on The History Channel, Oregon Field Guide segments on Oregon Public Broadcasting, magazine and newspaper articles and a recent article in the March issue of Parade, a national celebrity magazine.
I found an arrowhead when I was 10 in San Diego, and I looked for others and didn’t find more. I was taking a class in anthropology in ‘74, and it just clicked. So I took a class in archaeology and we went out and excavated on Saturdays for the class. We did some surveys and excavations, and I got a small paycheck. I said, “My god, you can get paid to do this! I would do it for free.”
I’m originally from Eugene. Once I came back from Las Vegas, I knew I wasn’t going back to the desert. I ended up teaching at the University of Oregon Archaeology Field School at the behest of my dissertation chair, C. Melvin Aikens (emeritus professor of archaeology from the University of Oregon).
Paisley Caves has been a major focus for me. I visited there with a tour in 2002 and was ready to tackle a problem—between Cressman and his critics—to find out who was right. Aikens and I had been working our way backwards through time on sites 3,000 years old and then 7,000 years old and then, in the last ten years, on sites older than 10,000 years. By 2003, we had the first radiocarbon dates back for the Paisley Caves that were right around 14,000 calendar years. I was then contacted by Dr. Alan Cooper at the University of Oxford, who asked if we had anyone doing DNA samples. I didn’t know much about DNA sampling then. We worked out a deal, and he sent Eske Willerslev, a Danish DNA researcher and Oxford colleague, to get the samples.
Eske came in 2004, took samples and went back to Oxford. I didn’t hear anything from him until late 2005. Then he finally called me and asked, “How old are these samples?” and I told him some could be more than 14,000 years old. This could be some of the most important poop you’ve ever seen. He said, “We’re getting Native American DNA out of some of them.”
With the DNA signature of the samples from the caves, we have the oldest human remains in the Western Hemisphere. What you have is an incredible assemblage of artifacts, baskets, charred food, deer, and antelope bones and used obsidian. What makes this so exceptional is not just that we have fossils of horses and camels and bison that date to more than 14,000 years old, but that we have human remains that have been directly radiocarbon dated to the same age as those animals. Until now, we just didn’t have artifacts or human remains demonstrably that old.
The vast majority of my colleagues say that it’s about time that we have found the people we’ve been looking for. The Clovis-era technology is an American development. There’s nothing exactly like it in Asia. And yet everybody knows that people had to come from Siberia to get here. But no human bone or DNA had been found that’s older than 13,000 years.
It was probably a hard life. We know they were exploiting the entire range of ecological settings: desert, forests and marshes of the Northern Great Basin. The presence of snails tells us that there was fresh water flowing over gravelly stream bottoms nearby. We know that the area got about two and a half times more precipitation than there is now. There was less evaporation and more vegetation around the caves. There were camels, horses, and bison. You would have also had mammoths and perhaps mastodons in this area.
As far as we know they are. But will we ever find the first Oregonian? We’ll never know. In breaking the Clovis barrier, we are looking for a needle in a haystack. We’re looking back thousands of years for tools, and human and animal remains that nature has been actively destroying through erosion and burial. At Paisley Caves, the haystack is much smaller and the needle available for finding.
In April in St. Louis, I’m giving a presentation to the Society for American Archeology on distribution and dating of Paisley artifacts, strata, and animal bones. I’m working on another article to publish in Science magazine on radiocarbon dating.