Oregon may be oldest site of human occupation in North America, archaeologists say

A team of archeologists discovered one of North America's oldest human-occupied sites. (Source: KVAL/PATRICK O'GRADY/CNN)
Published: Aug. 28, 2023 at 6:36 AM CDT
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EUGENE, Ore. (KVAL) - There’s been a major discovery out West.

Patrick O’Grady, along with other archeologists and students at the University of Oregon, have discovered new evidence suggesting that Oregon could be the oldest site of human occupation in North America.

According to a new radio carbon dating analysis, the site dates back 18,000 years ago,

If that’s true, it would be way earlier than archaeologists had previously thought, coming before the Clovis culture once seen as the oldest.

The team first began excavating Rimrock Draw Rockshelter in Burns, Oregon, in 2011, “which means this is among the oldest artifacts in North America,” O’Grady said.

An orange agate tool was discovered in 2012. It was preserved under a layer of volcanic ash from a Mount Saint Helens eruption over 15,000 years ago.

They also found the remains of three ice age animals, which O’Grady said is very rare.

“In 2012, we found this tooth enamel with this stone tool underneath it. And so, this is the one that tested positive for bison blood. But it was actually found buried underneath camel tooth enamel,” he said. “We have dated camel tooth enamel, tells a story about the association of extinct animals and people in Oregon 18,000 years ago.”

He said the evidence shows camels or camelops actually roamed around Oregon thousands of years ago. The reason they disappeared from North America is still up for debate.

Just last month, the team announced that the blood residue revealed animal proteins on one of the many tools found in the rock shelter.

The tools were used for many purposes.

A sharp point would have been used and put at the top of a dart. It would then be launched towards an animal, which would then be eaten and used for hide.

“And you launch that like a giant arrow,” O’Grady said.

While the stone spears found at the site are usually used with an atlatl or spear, the team has yet to uncover one at this specific site.

O’Grady said the atlatl is the most successful and long-term hunting weapon used in North America.

It turns out people didn’t occupy this area for long periods. It was more of a place that they passed through.

Going back to the discovery of the orange stone, “this looks different because its not from the area. We’re not quite sure where this came from to arrive at this site,” O’Grady said.

It had been carried from a long distance, suggesting that it was an area people passed through.

The team also would have expected to find more tools at the site had it been a more permanent home.

The archaeological discovery is teaching about more than just humanity’s past.

“It tells us about how people respond to climate changes over time, and we’re in one right now that we need all the help understanding that we can get,” O’Grady

If people can better understand how people dealt with climate change thousands of years ago, it may help people in years to come.

O’Grady said archaeologists have a couple more years of work, including one more year of excavation, and they plan to preserve the site for future researchers.