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Archaeology

Fossilized human feces hints at long-lost, 13,500-year-old West Coast culture

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    Dennis Jenkins, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History, holds a human coprolite (dried feces) taken from Oregon's Paisley Caves. The sample dates to about 13,000 years ago.Jim Barlow

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    Displayed in the hand of University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis Jenkins are three bases for Western Stemmed projectiles from the Paisley Caves in Oregon. The bases date to some 13,000 years ago.Jim Barlow

Maybe the 1992 movie Brendan Fraser film Encino Man wasn’t too far from the mark?

Fossilized human feces and other evidence from a West Coast cave demonstrates the existence of a long-lost, 13,500-year-old American culture, scientists said Thursday. 

The fossilized feces, known to researchers as a coprolite, from the Paisley Caves in Oregon has turned assumptions about the history of the Americas on its ear.

“Coprolites are as good as a human skeleton,” Dr. Thomas Stafford, Jr. of Stafford Research Laboratories said during a briefing for science journalists. This particular one left him stunned.

Archaeologists and paleontologists had long thought that a culture called Clovis once inhabited New Mexico, basing that belief on evidence from arrowheads and spear points carved in a certain way. Clovis was long regarded as the New World’s first inhabitants. 

Stafford believes the newfound coprolite suggests that the Oregon cave dwellers who lived here so long ago and the other, pre-historic humans at Clovis were “contemporaneous and parallel” -- a finding that rewrites history in North America.

Parallel Lives

'Coprolites are as good as a human skeleton.'

- Dr. Thomas Stafford, Jr.

Dr. Dennis Jenkins, lead author of the paper and an archaeologist with the University of Oregon, said that four years ago, when he and his team first published its research on the Paisley Caves, they had “very few artifacts” as evidence for the existence of the Western Stem People, the name researchers have given to the Oregon cave dwellers.

“That raised questions about the veracity of our findings,” he said. “We were looking at human life, but we wondered if it was possible the DNA reached us through contamination or leaching.”

In a 2011 dig, he set out to recover more artifacts and prove that DNA evidence there was not contaminated by water, rodents or other means, Jenkins said. The team conducted a stratographic and chronological analysis of the cave and its contents. 

“We separated any extraneous carbon that may have attached itself to the artifacts,” said Jenkins.

Another researcher on this project, Dr. Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, noted that during the first dig, scientists did not wear rubber gloves. So this time, they also screened for the possibility that their own DNA from sweat, hair and skin may have contaminated the site.

Researchers then dated each fiber they found containing human DNA.

“We did that 12 times,” Jenkins said. “In general, the coprolite was younger than the extraneous carbon. We also demonstrated that by taking radio carbon dates at four centimeter intervals.”

Radiocarbon dating is highly precise, and determined that the humans lived in the cave 13,000 to 13,500 years ago.

In addition to the human DNA remains, archeologists found arrowheads used for hunting by the cave dwellers. Camel and horse remains were found in the caves too, as was duck’s blood.

This group is a unique techno-culture, the researchers said, who had their own style of arrowhead making different from that used by the Clovis people. Scientists still have a long way to go in discerning the way these cavemen lived, as they do not know what language they spoke, or how they socially organized their culture.

The scientists plan to examine the fossilized feces further to determine the diet of the cave dwellers, and to examine the intestinal bacteria preserved within it, which will give additional clues to the cave puzzle. From this data, science may be able to determine if these people were hunters or gatherers. 

“At this moment, we have no baseline of what their gut flora was like,” Willerslev said. “This is a brilliant opportunity to explore this.”

Gut flora aid in human digestion -- they're known in medicine as “good bacteria.”

Searching through fossilized feces in the Snake River next to Hell’s Canyon may not sound like fun for many, but that sort of work is a trusted technique for archeologists.

“What archeologists deal with mostly is garbage,” said Jenkins.