Oregon State archaeologists uncover earliest human tools in the Americas

Published: Jan. 31, 2023 at 4:26 PM PST
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CORVALLIS, Ore. (KPTV) - For months at a time, Oregon State University archaeology students worked to uncover secrets from the past.

For 10 years, they set up along the Salmon River near where the borders of Oregon, Washington and Idaho all meet.

“The graduate teaching assistants had to go out and mow where we were going to be camping for the next eight weeks and chase all the rattlesnakes out of there,” graduate student Kirsten Paulson said.

Paulson said you can’t beat the real-world experience.

“Excavation techniques, how to conduct yourself in the field, how to take notes, and conduct research is really important in the field of archaeology,” she said.

Another student who spent time at the Cooper’s Ferry site is Samantha Stone.

“Learning excavation techniques there was very, very important,” she said.

The group also had a history-changing discovery. It found projectile points, or early versions of weapons, that are more than 2,000 years older than previous ones found in the Americas. The spearpoints found at Cooper’s Ferry date back about 16,000 years.

“I think being able to excavate an artifact that hasn’t seen sunlight or been held by another person in many thousands of years is a really special experience and hard to describe,” Stone said.

Dr. Loren Davis, an OSU anthropology professor, led the excavation that ran from 2009 to 2018. He said this is in the area that the Nez Perce Native Americans lived.

“When you work at sites like this, it’s always kind of mind-blowing to handle objects that have been in the ground, out of human use for thousands and thousands of years,” Davis said.

Davis said this helps students better understand how to work on an excavation.

“You can only handle so much classroom work to think about or read about archaeology and you really need to get out there and do it,” he said. “The hands-on part of our field schools is really important.”

Stone said it made her realize she wanted to do similar projects.

“That experience really solidified my interest in it,” she said.