Cave poop sheds light on early Oregonians
The following is a reprint from April 19, 2008
It is ironic that excrement would provide proof that our first Americans were here a thousand years earlier than we once thought.
What do you suppose Mrs. Cave Dweller said to her husband when, instead of going out to the biffy, he squatted in the cave at Paisley in SoutheastOregon 14,300 years ago?
"Reginald, take that outside. What will people think?"
How interesting that of all the stuff left in Oregon's prehistoric caves — sagebrush sandals, bones, thread as fine as we use today — the item that would do it, that would give us claim to the oldest Americans, is doo-doo.
Coprolites, they call them, fossilized feces. Rockhounds used to hold up coprolites as kind of a joke. "Guess what this is?" they'd say.
I, of course, leapt to conclusions about the gender of the cave pooper. I reasonably assumed that any woman who kept her sewing materials in her cave would not be likely to soil her own nest.
As it turns out, for complex reasons involving a lot of genetic science that I won't go into here, the DNA tests of the ancient coprolites didn't indicate the gender of the offender.
I know this because I asked Dennis L. Jenkins, senior staff archaeologist at the University of Oregon, who found the coprolites in Paisley.
He dashed my notion that only a male would do that in the house, saying that I didn't take into account that cave babies wandered around without diapers.
And, he said, ancient people tended to use one part of the cave as a latrine.
It is ironic that excrement would provide the proof that our first Americans were here a thousand years earlier than we once thought.
That these people found their way across a land bridge from Siberia, skirted a monster sheet of ice that covered much of North America, and settled down in a waterfront cave in Paisley.
So I guess I should apologize to any cave guys left. The whole notion of crossing a Siberian land bridge and creeping along a cold coast — think Depoe Bay in the winter — gives me the shivers and earns my respect.
I also asked Jenkins about another Oregon find. In 1938, archaeologist Luther Cressman found dozens of pairs of sandals, beautifully made from sagebrush, stored in a cave near Fort Rock. Believed to be the world's oldest shoes, they are even older than the purple-suede, wedge-heeled hippie shoes I keep in my closet.
The cache of sandals is still a mystery, Jenkins says.
But I think they were left there by an early cave Imelda, who knew she might wear them again some day.
Either way, we would not have these mysteries, or some of the answers, without access to relatively untouched archaeological sites.
Luther Cressman knew he had a treasure because the sandals were below an undisturbed layer of volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Mazama, the blast that left us Crater Lake.
The next time you hear some yahoo brag of digging up artifacts in the desert, don't think of it as a quaint hobby. Think instead of looters, lawbreakers and destroyers of history.
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