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On a remote forest riverbank in northern Idaho, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of human occupation going back more than 13,500 years, adding to the signs of an increasingly ancient human presence in the Northwest, and fueling the debate about how the region’s earliest settlers got there.
The oldest evidence, found in test pits dug along the North Fork of the Clearwater River, includes a blade-like tool fashioned from a rock cobble and dozens of flakes left over from the tool-making process, known as debitage.
Western Stemmed Tradition.
The oldest of them dating to just over 11,000 years ago, these points are the signature of a culture whose traces have been found throughout the Great Basin and the Northwest.
Western Stemmed points discovered elsewhere have been dated to a similar range as the Idaho finds, and in some cases even earlier, including Oregon’s Paisley Caves, where samples have been dated, somewhat controversially, to more than 14,000 years old.
[Read about the latest research from Paisley Caves: "Ancient Feces From Oregon Cave Aren’t Human, Study Says, Adding to Debate on First Americans"]
Taken together, the range of artifacts found at the Idaho site, known as Kelly Forks, suggests long and regular use by ancient hunter-gatherers, primarily for making tools and processing game, according to Laura Longstaff of the University of Idaho, who reported her team’s findings at the annual meeting of the Montana Archaeological Society.
“There is enough material associated with the earliest dates to get an idea of the animals they hunted, tools they were making, stone they used at 13,000 years ago,” she said in an interview.
“And just having anything associated with these dates is enough to get excited about.”
Chemical analysis of the flake tool revealed it to have traces of proteins associated with rabbit flesh, she added, “so that means that people were using rabbit as a resource during the earliest occupation we encountered at the site, which is really cool.”
But the more recent, 11,000-year-old points found at Kelly Forks are equally significant, she said, because they add important new data to the mounting evidence of the Western Stemmed Tradition in the Northwest.
They may also shed light on the Tradition’s proximity, if any, to the Clovis, whose own unique tools found throughout North America suggest they were the first widespread culture on the continent.