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For decades, archaeologists have believed that the earliest humans in North America were the prehistoric Clovis Paleo Indians, who supposedly crossed a land bridge between Asia and modern-day Alaska around 13,000 years ago. Now, an even older discovery in Cooper’s Ferry, Idaho is changing the history books.
Cooper’s Ferry is an archaeological site along the Salmon River in western Idaho near the town of Cottonwood. For ten years, Oregon State University professor of anthropology Loren Davis has been excavating the site with teams of students he brings with him on digs every summer.
And for years, Davis and his students have been striking archaeological gold by finding ancient tools and charcoal dating back far earlier than any Clovis site.
According to a report published in Science:
Radiocarbon dating and Bayesian analysis indicate an age between 16,560 and 15,280 years before present. Humans therefore arrived in the Americas before an inland ice-free corridor had opened, so a Pacific coastal route was the probable entry route…
Artifacts from these early occupations indicate the use of unfluted stemmed projectile point technologies before the appearance of the Clovis Paleoindian tradition and support early cultural connections with northeastern Asian Upper Paleolithic archaeological traditions.
The Cooper’s Ferry site was initially occupied during a time that predates the opening of an ice-free corridor (≤14,800 cal yr B.P.), which supports the hypothesis that initial human migration into the Americas occurred via a Pacific coastal route.
Below, Dr. Loren Davis discusses finds at Cooper’s Ferry a few years back.
So, it appears that Davis has evidence that people from Asia reached North America via the Pacific Ocean and then paddled into the Columbia river, which connects to the sea. The ancient travelers would have likely taken the Snake river, which flows into Idaho and connects to the Salmon river, where they then settled and survived by hunting and butchering animals for meat and gathering plants.
“The Cooper’s Ferry site is located along the Salmon River, which is a tributary of the larger Columbia River basin,” Davis said. “Early peoples moving south along the Pacific coast would have encountered the Columbia River as the first place below the glaciers where they could easily walk and paddle in to North America. Essentially, the Columbia River corridor was the first off-ramp of a Pacific coast migration route. The timing and position of the Cooper’s Ferry site is consistent with and most easily explained as the result of an early Pacific coastal migration.”
Indeed, ice covered the landscape, but was much more difficult to traverse further north.
To hunt and process animals, these ancient people carved stones into points, which have been found and remind Davis of similar finds from Asia, specifically in Japan.
“The stemmed projectile points closely resemble those found in Upper Paleolithic Japan, also supporting the hypothesis of a coastal route,” the report says.
That’s not to say uncovering the evidence was easy. The team had to dig through several layers of sediment, each one being older than the previous one.
“Prior to getting these radiocarbon ages, the oldest things we’d found dated mostly in the 13,000-year range, and the earliest evidence of people in the Americas had been dated to just before 14,000 years old in a handful of other sites,” Davis said. “When I first saw that the lower archaeological layer contained radiocarbon ages older than 14,000 years, I was stunned but skeptical and needed to see those numbers repeated over and over just to be sure they’re right. So we ran more radiocarbon dates, and the lower layer consistently dated between 14,000-16,000 years old.”
“Our results just kept on coming in older and older and older,” Davis told National Geographic. “I just never had thought that the site was going to be this old.”
The Clovis people were thought to have been the first to arrive in North America using an ice-corridor cutting south through Canada after a period of melting. This new discovery suggests people came here earlier by boat, allowing them to make it to Idaho faster than anyone else.
“Now we have good evidence that people were in Idaho before that corridor opened,” he said. “This evidence leads us to conclude that early peoples moved south of continental ice sheets along the Pacific coast.”
Of course, there are those who caution that more work needs to be done before we can definitively say that Davis is right, such as University of Washington archaeologist Donald Grayson, who agrees that the Cooper’s Ferry site is pre-Clovis.
“Cooper’s Ferry, to me, is a totally convincing pre-Clovis site,” he said.
But he’s not sure about the stone tools being related to similar tools found in Japan.
“Similarities in artifacts, unless they’re really complex, don’t really tell us about relatedness,” he says.
San Diego State University archaeologist Todd Braje is more open to the idea but is still cautious as well.
“The challenge now is connecting [Cooper’s Ferry] with the handful of other early sites in North America and globally,” Braje says. “We have a lot of work to do to build the story.”
And Davis certainly has plenty of work to do considering the amount of artifacts the site has yielded over the years.
“We have 10 years’ worth of excavated artifacts and samples to analyze,” he said. “We anticipate we’ll make other exciting discoveries as we continue to study the artifacts and samples from our excavations.”
If these humans were not part of the Clovis migration, then who are they and where did they come from? Those are questions that may never be answered definitively. Then again, scientists once thought the Clovis were definitely the earliest people to settle in North America, and now they have just been proven wrong. Perhaps there could even be evidence of an earlier migration to North America. It’s just a matter of digging deep enough, and in the right place.
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