Last week a story in Science about an Idaho archeological site drew international attention and excitement. In north Idaho south of Cottonwood on the Salmon River is a spot known as Cooper’s Ferry. First excavated in the 1970s, it was occupied repeatedly by Native Americans. But, what was stunning was the dating of first occupancy based upon charcoal, tools and animal remains to 16,560 and 15,280 years ago.
That is the oldest dated human site in all of the Americas, outside of Alaska and the Yukon. During the last ice age glaciers cut that region off from the rest of the continent. Around 13,000 years ago global warming opened a path through the glaciers into the rest of the Americas.
So, how did people get to Cooper’s Ferry around 16,000 years ago? That date strongly indicates that the first humans entering the Americans came by sea, not overland after the glaciers parted. That was the reason for the excitement. Here is the key paragraph in the Science story:
It’s easy to see how seafaring people might have reached Cooper’s Ferry, says Loren Davis, an archaeologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis who led the excavations. Although the site is more than 500 kilometers from the coast, the Salmon, Snake, and Columbia rivers link it to the sea. “As people come down the coast, the first left-hand turn to get south of the ice comes up the Columbia River Basin,” Davis says. “It’s the first off-ramp.”
Based upon stone points found there is even speculation that the occupants originated from the island of Hokkaido in Northern Japan as the Idaho finds are similar to ones from there.
This incredibly important discovery creates the opportunity to develop a significant set of Idaho attractions. With Idaho having the oldest site south of the ancient ice, Cooper’s Ferry could be the crown jewel. The artifacts found there should find a permanent home somewhere close to the site in an appropriate museum.
But, Idaho has other sites worthy of becoming part of a future “Trail of Ancient Man”.
In June of 1961, in an field immediately east of Fairfield, farmer Bill Simon unearthed a roughly 13,000 year old Clovis cache consisting of roughly 30 stone points and implements. The Clovis culture lasted about 500 years and are known for their long, beautiful spear points. For decades we thought they were the first Americans. But, the people of Cooper’s Ferry predated them. Most of their remains have been found in the eastern part of the U.S. Their range was from Venezuela to Alaska and they hunted mammoths and other big game. The Simon discovery site should have more than a simple sign on State Highway 20.
The Simon family in 1997 donated 32 stone artifacts from the cache to the Herrett Center for Arts and Science at the College of Southern Idaho. They are kept in a vault for security. Funds should be raised to put them on an appropriate secured public display.
About 17 miles immediately west of Idaho Falls are the three Wasden caves which are partially collapsed lava tubes. About 12,500 years ago three mammoths were killed in or near one by Folsom hunters. This was one of the cultures that followed Clovis. Later, more than sixty bison antiquitus were driven in and slaughtered. This is a world-class site. The other two caves need to be excavated (the issue is money). And, like Simon, it needs more than a sign on the nearby highway.
In an exciting development, the families that owned the caves at discovery have recently donated 80,000 artifacts from the digs to the expanding Museum of Idaho in Idaho Falls and, at least a portion, will go on public display in 2020.
There are many other ancient Idaho human sites. Wilson Butte Cave near Dietrich dates to 12,000 years old. The Birch Creek Rockshelters on the road to Salmon are around 11,000 years old. In 1989, the Twin Falls Highway Department found a 12,500-year-old burial site of a Paleoindian woman near Buhl. Each should be honored and the artifacts made accessible to the public.
Idaho has a unique story to tell about the occupation of the Americas. We need to tell it in a compelling, educational way that will excite our people and attract the attention of tourists from around the world.