Archaeologists 'Step In' an Ancient Discovery
Wherein we connect with an ancient civilization by scraping history's sticky antiquity off the bottom of our Indiana Jones boots...
story by Matt Christenson
Archaeologists from the University of Oregon have a brand new checklist for their field trips.
Fedora? Check. Bullwhip? Got it. Poop stick? Yep.
It's true. Our most learned academics and scientists are now carrying a little something extra to clean off the bottom of their shoes.
Dr. Dennis Jenkins, archaeological field school director for the University of Oregon's Museum of Natural and Cultural History, had a major announcement this April.
His team discovered coprolites containing human DNA dated over 14,000 years old.
The team of archaeologists made this historic finding during field research at the Paisley Caves - an area administered by the Bureau of Land Management located within the Summer Lake Basin near Paisley, Oregon.
And thanks to Federal Antiquities Permits provided in partnership by the BLM's Lakeview District, Dr. Jenkins' discovery now makes this site home to the earliest known residents of North America - over one thousand years older than the Clovis culture previously established in New Mexico.
Go ahead and congratulate Dr. Jenkins. Just be sure to wash your hands afterwards.
Poop? This ain't poop. This is coprolite.
Coprolite is a fancy word for fossilized feces. So maybe the next time your dog poops on the neighbors' lawn, you can tell them you're just turning their hedgerow into a famous future archaeological dig. And while you'd love to pick up your dog's poop - uh, your dog's "coprolites," please - you'd hate to deny future scientists in the next millennia all that wonderful research.
Researchers are realizing that coprolites are jam-packed with information and offer science more than just their basic age. (Yes, someone has to carbon date them which probably makes your job look pretty sweet right now...) These fossils also provide a fascinating look into the DNA and genetic make-up of the earliest humans.
Dr. Jenkins has been able to identify DNA characteristics which indicate that the Paisley Caves coprolites came from early Native Americans. And this genetic code shares many similarities with ancient groups from Eastern Asia - thus giving a level of credence to the premise that prehistoric humans traveled to the Americas via a land bridge from Asia across the Bering Sea.
Honey, I'm tired of eating squirrel. Can we send out for chipmonk?
In addition to our American ancestors' genetic material, we can also study their diet in the coprolites. From their now famous samples, Dr. Jenkins' team has identified remnants of grouse, chipmunk, lizards, and fish. And they've also detected a number of wild greens that grew outside the Paisley Caves.
Not exactly haute cuisine, but you have to remember cell phone coverage was spotty back in those days when they wanted to order a pizza.
the University of Oregon!
Instead Dr. Jenkins' dietary findings suggest these early humans were likely hunter‐gatherers who traveled frequently, eating local grains and grasses along with small animals they could easily capture.
Then they took shelter in caves - to "have some personal time."
Land of the People for over 14,000 years - and counting
Because the Paisley Caves are located on public lands, these fossils have received the protection and oversight of BLM management. This land was freely used by its inhabitants 14,000 years ago, and it continues to be used and studied by the public today.
Who knows what future discoveries may bring. Indigenous toenail clippings? A prehistoric sneezed-in leaf? The possibilities are endless!
"It is thrilling that America's public lands have revealed such a significant link to our past," said Shirley Gammon, BLM Lakeview District Manager. "We look forward to continuing our partnership with Dr. Jenkins and the University of Oregon in further research and protection of this once in a lifetime discovery."
Thrilling? A Once in a Lifetime Discovery? Oh, yes. Never have coprolites been so newsworthy - but don't expect to see them on display in your local museum any time soon.
More about the BLM's archeological and cultural heritage programs are available online.