Ancient Owyhee visitors

Dr. Tom Connolly is the archaeological research director for the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History & State Museum of Anthropology. He recently shared the latest thoughts on the history of human habitation in the Pacific Northwest, including the Owyhee Canyonlands. Photos courtesy Dr. Connolly and the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

Dr. Connolly, how far back does current research show that humans inhabited the high desert area of Oregon?

Our best evidence comes from the Paisley Caves, located about 5 miles north of the town of Paisley in the Summer Lake Basin. In the 1930s, Luther Cressman found cultural artifacts with the bones of now-extinct Pleistocene animals; he believed they were associated but could not prove the association. During the past decade, renewed research at the site confirmed that people were present there by about 14,500 years ago, 1,500 years earlier than the Clovis people, and at a time when Pleistocene horses, camels and other now-extinct animals were present.

People may be familiar with the Bering land bridge theory of how humans arrived in North America, but a newer theory suggests a different type of migration. Could you describe how these two theories of migration differ? What types of cultural changes actually made the migration possible?

For most of the last century, we’ve accumulated evidence for a lot of very early sites where the hunting of terrestrial game was an apparent focus; this reinforced the idea that the earliest people in the Americas were land-based hunting people. At many of the earliest sites, distinctive weapons — Clovis projectile points — were found. It was thought that the most logical way for land-based hunters to get to the American continents was by the Bering land bridge. Some 13,000 years ago, during Clovis times, glacial ice from the last ice age was melting; but enough of the Earth’s water was still locked up in glacial ice, and sea levels were much lower than they are today. Water now covering the shallow Bering Strait would have been gone, and people could have simply walked from Asia to what is now Alaska. When enough ice had melted to create a corridor between the glaciers of the western mountains and the massive ice sheet that spread out of Hudson Bay, people could have then walked to the continental area south of Alaska, presumably following the game they were hunting.

Recent evidence for the presence of people in the Americas before Clovis times, to at least 15,000 years ago, poses a problem for the ice-free corridor theory. The deeper into the ice age you go, the more ice there would have been, and the less possible a passage to the continent south of Alaska would have been possible. So what other options are there for people reaching the Americas? The most likely way is by boat. People had populated Australia, and the Japanese and other Pacific islands — places that would have required boats to reach even with much lower sea levels — by at least 30,000 years ago. They would have made use of the great concentration of potential foods along the coast (sea mammals, shore birds, shellfish, fish), and could have hopped from one ice-free refuge along the Pacific coast to the next.

You've said that additional cultural changes during the current age transformed a highly mobile people into more territorial groups, utilizing food gathering and storage, along with many lifestyle changes. Could you give examples of some archeological evidence that has been found in central and eastern Oregon to substantiate theories of how peoples lived in this area over the last thousands of years?

As early as about 6,000 years ago, we begin to see evidence for substantial houses, large-scale food-processing features and storage pits. There may have been several motivations for these changes, such as a landscape filling up with people that limited the effectiveness of high mobility, and the desire to maintain a presence at a particularly favorable place on the landscape to keep it out of the hands of competitors. We see clearer evidence of proprietary and territorial behavior; over long periods of time, residential communities would develop into distinct social and linguistic communities.

How are opportunities for excavation presented to you and your team?

Most of the work we do is for state and federal agencies that have been charged with protecting and managing cultural resources such as archaeological sites. When the Oregon Department of Transportation realigns a road or replaces a bridge, or when Oregon State Parks wants to build a pedestrian path or campground, they often encounter archaeological sites. We are called in to identify and evaluate these sites and to aid excavation to recover and document information the site provides that would otherwise be lost.

It is easy to experience the natural beauty of the high desert, but the cultural history here is more elusive. The High Desert Museum in Bend has some valuable exhibits. What additional cultural history may be experienced at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon in Eugene?

The University of Oregon Museum of Natural History has exhibits on the cultural history of all areas of the state, including the high desert. The museum is also the state’s official storage facility for archaeological materials from public lands, a designation assigned by the Oregon Legislature in the 1930s. The museum has produced many publications and research monographs on the state’s natural and cultural history; a recent book of relevance to this discussion is Oregon Archaeology, written by museum archaeologists (Mel Aikens, Dennis Jenkins, and myself) and published by Oregon State University Press.

In spite of a relatively small exhibit area, the held collections are extensive. For most of the past century, the UO Museum of Natural History has primarily been a research museum, and all materials in the collections are available for research purposes. The museum’s public face has expanded in recent decades, with significant expansions of the exhibit space every 10 years or so. The most recent expansion, which opened this past year, is a wing that focuses on the state’s natural history.