Oldest American artifact unearthed
Archaeologists claim to have found the oldest known artefact in the Americas, a scraper-like tool in an Oregon cave that dates back 14,230 years.
The tool shows that people were living in North America well before the widespread Clovis culture of 12,900 to 12,400 years ago, says archaeologist Dennis Jenkins of the University of Oregon in Eugene.
Studies of sediment and radiocarbon dating showed the bone's age. Jenkins presented the finding late last month in a lecture at the University of Oregon.
His team found the tool in a rock shelter overlooking a lake in south-central Oregon, one of a series of caves near the town of Paisley.
Kevin Smith, the team member who uncovered the artefact, remembers the discovery. "We had bumped into a lot of extinct horse, bison and camel bone – then I heard and felt the familiar ring and feel when trowel hits bone," says Smith, now a master's student at California State University, Los Angeles. "I switched to a brush. Soon this huge bone emerged, then I saw the serrated edge. I stepped back and said: 'Hey everybody — we got something here.'"
Other researchers questioned whether the cave's inhabitants would have been mainly vegetarian, as the coprolites suggested. (Editor's note: Please see the comments thread of this article for the authors of this reference weighing in on the significance of their work.) In his recent lecture Jenkins noted other evidence reflecting a diet short on meat but including edible plants such as the fern leaf biscuit root Domatium dissectum.
In late September, a group of archaeologists who study the peopling of the Americas met with federal officials and a representative of the local Klamath tribe to review the evidence at Paisley Caves. The specialists spent two days examining sediments, checking the tool, and assessing other plant and animal evidence.
"It was an impressive presentation," says David Meltzer, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, who attended the meeting. "This is clearly an important site, but there are some tests that need to be done to seal the deal." One key, he says, is to better understand how the specimens got to the cave.