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17 April 2004
Oregon's early natives

Were humans present 12,000 years ago in the Great Basin region of Oregon (USA) when buffalo, non-Spanish horses and even camels roamed the landscape? This, the central question of University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis Jenkins' series of digs, is what researchers have been trying to determine since the 1930s. In 1938, Luther Cressman, the first to explore the region, discovered preserved 9,000-year-old shredded sage sandals at Fort Rock Cave in south central Oregon. Until radiocarbon dating verified his find, his belief was that humans had occupied the area a maximum of 4,000 years ago.
     On the heels of that research, Jenkins has uncovered evidence from Paisley Caves, a 5-mile ridge near the Summer Lake Basin about 100 miles from Cressman's sandal discovery, suggesting humans existed even earlier in the region. According to Jenkins, this prehistoric community used complex hunting and domestic tools to establish sustainable living. Because Crater Lake and probably other water basins were formed by the eruption of Mount Mazama 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, and archaeological digs have revealed evidence of human life below that distinct level of ash strata, Jenkins believes that humans could have survived in an earlier climate, with large grazing mammals and lush vegetation.
     Jenkins believes that the caves were formed after the water level of Summer Lake gradually dropped and wave action formed the remaining Paisley Caves, consisting primarily of basalt after the waves drew softer rock away from the ridge. In these caves, Jenkins found both human artifacts and animal bones radiocarbon dated to the same time period, 12,000 to 14,000 years ago.
     Jenkins also found evidence of hearths, holes for fire, in the caves. He found evidence of hearth smoke in a strata level below the Mount Mazama ash level. "This tells me that no hearth existed after the volcanic eruption," he said. Jenkins theorizes there was a wet period in the Great Basin 12,000 years ago and this is what allowed human and animal life to flourish in the region. He said his research suggests the animal species became extinct abruptly and that was a result of the cave dwellers' hunting. Bones with sharp slaughter marks were found in the caves near human artifacts. Further evidence of an advanced human species came on a 2003 dig when one of Jenkins' team found a small piece of string with separated fibers twisted back together. The string, made of what Jenkins believes to be Indian hemp, was radiocarbon dated to 12,750 years ago and remains the oldest artifact ever to be found in the Great Basin.
     Jenkins' findings tend to prove his theories of prehistoric life in Oregon but he is still searching for further evidence with help from DNA analysis at Oxford University in England.

Source: The Worldlink.com (12 April 2004)

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