Nature Magazine journalist Rex Dalton interviewed SMU archaeologist David J. Meltzer as an expert source to weigh in on the claim by University of Oregon archaeologists who say they’ve found the oldest known artifact in the Americas.
Dalton’s Nov. 5 article, “Oldest American Artifact Unearthed,” quotes a number of expert sources on the discovery of a scraper-like tool in an Oregon cave. The discovery team dates the tool to 14,230 years ago.
Meltzer, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, researches the origins, antiquity, and adaptations of the first Americans — Paleoindians — who colonized the North American continent at the end of the Ice Age. He focuses on how these hunter-gatherers met the challenges of moving across and adapting to the vast, ecologically diverse landscape of Late Glacial North America during a time of significant climate change.
Meltzer is chair of SMU’s Department of Anthropology and the Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory in SMU’s Dedman College.
By Rex Dalton
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.
Laid to rest?
The dating of the bone tool, and the finding that the sediments encasing it range from 11,930 to 14,480 years old, might put these questions to rest. “You couldn’t ask for better dated stratigraphy,” Jenkins told the Oregon meeting.
“They have definitely made their argument even stronger,” says Todd Surovell, an archaeologist at the University of Wyoming in Laramie who was not involved in the research.
Other researchers questioned whether the cave’s inhabitants would have been mainly vegetarian, as the coprolites suggested4. (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 fernleaf biscuitroot Lomatium 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.
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