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Oregon has been someone’s home since at least 12,400 B.C.

Fourteen thousand years ago, in a cold dry cave deep in the “Oregon Outback,” someone answered a “call of Nature” — leaving behind a hefty load that, toda, is the oldest evidence of human habitation on the West Coast.

Bill Cannon, district archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management, stands in front of the entrance to Cave No. 5 at the Paisley Caves site, where the 14,300-year-old coprolites were found. (Image: BLM)
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in November 2008, which you’ll find here.

Oregon is a very young state. Its oldest buildings – those whose dates are known, at any rate – went up in the 1850s; many a visitor from the East Coast, where there are still buildings constructed in the 1600s, has gotten a chuckle out of the fuss Oregonians make over architecture and artifacts barely over a century old.

But appearances are deceiving. As far as is known today, Oregon takes a back seat to nobody in a contest of antiquity.  The earliest evidence of human habitation in North America is here – in the form of DNA that’s literally 143 centuries old. And it’s far from the only evidence that humans have lived in the land we know as Oregon for a long, long time.

 

The DNA was recovered in 2008 by a team of archaeologists from the University of Oregon, led by Dennis Jenkins, during an expedition to the Paisley Caves, near the town of Paisley. Paisley is in north Lake County, by the bed of what was, 13,000 years ago, a massive freshwater lake called Lake Chewaucan. (Over the millennia, Lake Chewaucan slowly evaporated and shrank, year after year, until today all that is left are the shallow alkali waters of Summer Lake and Abert Lake).

Dramatic and important as the discovery of this DNA was, though, it’s not likely anyone is going to want to see it on display in a museum. The DNA was extracted not from a mummified skeleton like Otzi the Iceman, nor a freshly-fed mosquito encased in amber like in Jurassic Park – but rather from an artifact that goes by the neat, clean, clinical term “coprolite.”

Coprolites are – simply and bluntly put – feces. They’re ancient excretions that have either fossilized or been dried to the point that decomposition stopped. These particular ones, of course, were dried; and when they were tested in the university’s laboratory, they turned out to be 14,300 years old.

University of Oregon archaeological diggings at the Fort Rock Caves in 1966. (Image: John Atherton)

This was a big deal, because prior to this discovery the oldest known inhabitants of the Americas were a primitive culture known as the Clovis People, who lived 13,000 years ago. It’s also a big deal because the last ice-age glacial period ended roughly 10,000 years ago; so, whoever left these “artifacts” behind lived (and pooped) in the years of full ice-age glaciation – 30 centuries before the retreating glaciers loosed the Missoula Floods tearing through the Columbia River Gorge to form the Willamette Valley, and 10 centuries before the Clovis people.

Scientists were not slow to analyze their find. The DNA indicated that the party who answered Nature’s call 143 centuries before was of Siberian and East Asian origin, lending support to the “land-bridge theory,” which suggests that North America was populated by people migrating over the exposed seafloor from Siberia to Alaska during a time of low sea levels.

Since the coprolites were found, their authenticity has been somewhat hotly debated in the archaeological community. One study analyzed the old stools for diet content and concluded that they were the feces of herbivores, and the human DNA therefore had to be the result of accidental contamination by sloppy University of Oregon researchers; those researchers, naturally, found this claim unconvincing. The debate continues, although Jenkins and his team have since returned to the site and found more specimens along with artifacts such as arrowheads.

 

One of the 90-centuries-old sage-bark sandals found in the Fort Rock Caves. This one is in the collection at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon. (Image: MNCH)

Even if the evidence for the 14,300-year claim were thrown out, though – maybe the coprolites could turn out to have been from the extinct Oregon Cave Elk, or perhaps the Great Western Jackalope? – Oregon’s title as prehistoric capital of the West will still be safe, thanks to a pile of sandals found in a cave near Fort Rock in 1938 by Luther Cressman, a University of Oregon professor remembered today as the “father of Oregon archaeology.”

Dr. Cressman – who’s also famous for having once been married to Dr. Margaret Mead – found the sandals with the help of legendary Oregon rancher-raconteur Reub Long, on whose Fort Rock property the cave stands. They’re made of sagebrush bark, and look not much different from that type of modern beach sandal that’s woven out of ropes. These were radiocarbon dated to an age of 9,000 years.

Actually, they almost weren’t radiocarbon dated at all. After bringing them back to the university for study, Dr. Cressman carefully treated every square millimeter of the ancient footwear with a chemical preservative. A few years later, when the radiocarbon-dating technique was developed, Dr. Cressman was doubtless vigorously kicking himself for this. Once doped, the sandals could not be dated. Luckily, he had not found and “ruined” all the sandals; a return visit yielded a few more that he’d overlooked, and the dating was done on those.

Some of these sandals can be viewed in the Fort Rock Museum in the nearby town of that name, or – for Willamette Valley residents who don’t fancy a four-hour drive to the high desert to see them – in the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon, in Eugene. The Oregon Historical Society museum in Portland has at least one set, too.

 

Not to be left behind, Oregon State University has its own contribution to the archaeological exploration of ancient Oregon. In 2002, collaborating with the Coquille Tribe and Confederated Tribes of Siletz, a team of archaeologists led by professors Roberta Hall and Loren Davis went to the south coast with an eye toward finding evidence of ancient inhabitants.

Rather than looking for artifacts that would lead to other artifacts, as is more commonly done, the team looked for locations that would have been appealing to people 10,000 years ago; and, having found one in what’s now Boardman State Park, south of Brookings, they started poking around. In one spot, after they carefully dug down about half a meter, they hit pay dirt.

Pay dirt, in this case, was black: charcoal from an old hearth. Old fireplace ashes preserve themselves for centuries, and can be readily carbon-dated. In the case of the Boardman State Park charcoal, those tests yielded an astonishing result: These old campfire ashes were 11,600 to 12,900 years old.

(Sources: Hall, Roberta. “Ancient site of human activity found on Oregon Coast,” 11-06-2002, OSU News and Research Communications, oregonstate.edu; Strommer, Kristin. “UO scientists place extinct horse with humans in Paisley Caves,” 9-27-2016, Around the O, around.uoregon.edu; Griesmann, Kate. “Dr. Dung’s Discovery,” Oregon Quarterly, Autumn 2008)