It may have been late afternoon after the sun had set below the canyon rim on a cloudless summer day. Or early morning, as dew still clung to grasses by the fast-flowing stream. At this place along the lower Salmon River thousands of years ago, someone laid four stone projectile points side by side in a shallow pit. It’s likely that bones, stone tools and what archaeologists call “debitage” (stone chips and flakes) had been tossed in earlier. With hands probably calloused from a lifetime of pounding, carving and cutting with rock, this person covered the pit and topped it with round cobblestones to mark the spot.
We’ll never know who left those precious points. Was it a man or a woman? An artisan skilled in making razor-sharp blades from local rocks? Maybe a young hunter who was heading up the canyon in search of deer to feed his family.
It’s a good bet that someone planned to return and retrieve them. These people, whose ancestors may have migrated from Asia at the edge of an ice sheet or along a coastal waterway, needed such weapons to survive. Points made from local rocks —obsidian, chert, basalt — comprise the business end of darts most likely thrown with a device known as an “atlatl” (similar to the ball-throwing sticks some people use to exercise their dogs). But these four points, the result of hours of meticulous flaking and retouching, remained underground. Dust from the nearby plateau blew year by year through the steep-sided canyon and buried them ever deeper. Archaeologists think they remained there for more than 13,000 years until a graduate student dug them up in 1997. He found them at the bottom of a pit nearly 10 feet below the surface.
That student was Loren Davis, now an associate professor of anthropology at Oregon State University. With OSU students and other researchers, he has embarked on a journey to learn more about the people who made those artifacts.
Davis knows the trail is cold. “Archaeology is a gamble. You never know what’s going to work out,” he says. During his graduate school years he had considered working at prehistoric sites in Siberia and Baja California, Mexico. But for this Oregon native, the West held the strongest attraction. Five years into an ambitious exploration of a riverbank just above the lower Salmon, his roll of the dice is paying off. His team has already found the oldest examples of a type of stone tool that is unique to the Far West. And ancient artifacts continue to accumulate with each summer field season.
In 1997, Davis was no stranger to the lower Salmon River canyon. As a master’s student at Oregon State, before finding the points, he had worked as an archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management, reviewing and inspecting cultural sites along the river. Later, while pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Alberta, he combined archaeology with geology, particularly the last 2.5 million years, a period known as the Quaternary. It was an epoch of ice-age cycles. Now-extinct species of camels, horses, wooly mammoth, mastodon and bison roamed the steppes across Europe, Asia and North America. Whoever left those points along the lower Salmon probably hunted them.
That environment holds a key to the human story in North America, Davis says. “The world was so dramatically different at that time. There were ice sheets and giant lakes, and sea level was much lower. You have to have a geological outlook to make sense of a lot of it.”
Now, every summer, he heads back to the lower Salmon, to its confluence with Graves Creek at a spot known as Cooper’s Ferry, just south of the farm and ranch community of Cottonwood. Since 2009, he has led the Cooper’s Ferry Archaeology Field School (see “Searching the Past”), where students from Oregon State and around the country learn to scrape and sift millimeter by millimeter through soil as they look for clues left by those ice-age hunters.
So far, working under the shade of a mesh tarp in temperatures often over 100 degrees, they have found, photographed, labeled and bagged more than 30,000 objects: stone tools, tool-making flakes, mussel shells, animal bones (fish, rodent, rabbit, deer) and projectile points.
In 2013, they discovered part of a wolverine skeleton buried in a pit with a stemmed dart point and, in another nearby pit, 13 other points lying next to each other. They have found soil burned red, heat-cracked rocks and charcoal from ancient cooking fires. Davis estimates they are about halfway through an excavation that will take the better part of 10 years.
“This is a huge responsibility,” says Davis. “If you’re going to open up a site that’s this special, you have to be willing to do it at a very careful, slow pace. So in most years, we move downward only 40 to 50 centimeters (15 to 19 inches). We’re trying to find everything the size of a dime or larger in place. We want to uncover it in the ground and record it.
“The goal is not just to find stuff. If that was it, we’d just get a front-end loader, dig it all out and screen it. But we wouldn’t know how the artifacts go with each other, how the dates match with them and so on.”
Clovis and More
It’s the extraordinary care with which the work is being done, as well as the quality and the age of the artifacts, that make Cooper’s Ferry a prime site for archaeologists. The results are adding new perspectives to discoveries made at other Pleistocene-age landmarks in the West. Organic remains at those sites — the famous sagebrush bark sandals recovered by Luther Cressman at Fort Rock Cave; animal bones, fabric and human wastes (known as coprolites) found by Dennis Jenkins at Paisley Caves — have shed light on how early people lived.
For much of the 20th century, the story of the earliest people in North America was known as “Clovis First.” It proposes that all Native Americans descended from a single cultural group. In the 1930s, artifacts found near the New Mexico town of Clovis spurred a search for more such objects. Clovis culture became associated with a stone point that is fluted on both sides, meaning it features a concave channel running from the base toward the tip. Similar points, dating to more than 12,000 years ago, have been discovered across the continent.