Mastodon rib from Manis site, showing protruding end of an intrusive object. Source: CSFA
The Manis Mastodon site near Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula (map) is one of the great enigmas of Northwest Coast archaeology. The site has been known since the 1970s and is purportedly a Mastodon kill-butchery site. With radiocarbon dates (on plant material associated with extinct mastodon) of 13,500 to 13,900 calendar years ago, the site is clearly pre-Clovis. As a pre-Clovis site on the Northwest Coast, Manis should be of comparable stature to, say, the Clovis-killer Monte Verde site in Chile, which dates to about 14,500 calendar years ago.
Doubts remain about this site, though, mainly because it is not yet completely reported. A preliminary report by Gustafson et al. in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology (which I don’t have handy — hey CAA, I know you sell CDs of your back issues, so how hard can it be to put them online?) was equivocal about the association of some flake and cobble tools with the skeleton, and while interesting conclusions were drawn about the fragmentary nature of the skeleton, nothing conclusive was resolved. This is despite one of the clearest possible “smoking guns” one could hope for in archaeology.
Paisley Cave human coprolite dating older than 14,000 cal BP. Source: PBS.
There is a tantalizing news item in a recent edition of Nature indicating that the team led by Dennis Jenkins has found a bone tool in the old layers at Paisley Cave in southern Oregon. This cave already returned a number of pre-Clovis dates on human coprolites. Although there was some vociferous opposition to this finding, a vigorous defence of these feces was mounted and to my mind was effective. (Note that one of those claiming the human poop is actually camel poop posts a slightly hysterical online comment on this Nature news item. This charge of excess fibre is dealt with in Gilbert et al’s 2009 rebuttal in Science, which is not mentioned in the Nature comment. Clearly there is a new generation of data-selective Clovis Police being groomed out east.)
Anyway, this bone tool, which I assume will be published soon, is said in the Nature article to date to 14,230 cal. BP, from which I infer a 14C estimation of about 12,250 – exactly contempraneous with the poop. According to the article,
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.
Seeing the tool itself will of course be very interesting and hopefully definitive, as there is a long history of bone pseudo-tools in North American archaeology. So far this date has only been announced at an unspecified “meeting” and peer reviewed publication will be essential to form a final judgment.
You can watch a PBS news clip on the poop discovery from a link here which gives a good idea of the setting of the cave, and also includes nice footage of Luther Cressman!
Camel astragalus from Paisley Cave. Source: U of Oregon.
Dalton, Rex. 2009. Oldest American artefact unearthed: Oregon caves yield evidence of continent’s first inhabitants. Nature: doi:10.1038/news.2009.1058.
Mastodon! From: Science 20 November 2009
Abundant megafauna are important to the Clovis-First model of the peopling of the Americas because the mechanism for what was considered to be an exceptional event or series of events was overkill of these large, naive, critters . Overkill led first to localized extirpations (moving the Clovis folks along on a bow-wave of blood) and ultimately to megafaunal extinctions across the hemisphere.
Sad, then, for that particular story and its storytellers, to see recently reported results in Science which track (through samples of dung fungus) a millenium-long decline in mastodon and other megafauna before the arrival of Clovis. This decline might relate to climate change or to the influence of pre-Clovis humans – it’s too early to say. But as the graph below shows, the decline set in pre-Clovis at about 14,800 cal B.P., and by the time of Clovis (ca. 13,500 cal B.P.), far from being hyperabundant, herbiferous megafauna seem to have been at a historically low level of population. Vegetation change (often used to track climate) was a result of this die-back, not the cause of it. Perhaps this remnant megafauna population was then finished off by Clovis, but that is hardly a bow-wave of blood scenario, but rather a “mopping up” of increasingly scarce game. Has there ever been as misunderstood an archaeological concoction as the Clovis Culture?
Update: The Guardian has coverage, incongruously illustrated by the RBCM’s life-sized mammoth model.
Jacquelyn L. Gill, John W. Williams, Stephen T. Jackson, Katherine B. Lininger, Guy S. Robinson.
Pleistocene Megafaunal Collapse, Novel Plant Communities, and Enhanced Fire Regimes in North America.
Science 20 November 2009: Vol. 326. no. 5956, pp. 1100 – 1103
Pre-Clovis decline of large herbivores. Source: Science 20 November 2009