Remains of extinct horse found at site of early human occupation in North America

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Overview of Cooper's Ferry in western Idaho, where the remains of an extinct horse were found.
Overview of Cooper’s Ferry in western Idaho, where the remains of an extinct horse were found. © Loren Davis / Oregon State University

The butchered remains of an extinct horse were found at a site of human occupation potentially dating back more than 16,000 years – a date which suggests they most likely arrived in a trans-Pacific migration.

The dating of charcoal and bone samples from the site’s oldest layers linked with human occupation have been radiocarbon dated to between 16,560 and 15,280 years ago – some 1000 years before melting ice created a corridor through what is now the western United States.

It is the widely held view that the first humans crossed into North America via this land bridge, but the findings of research led by Loren Davis, of Oregon State University, makes a seas migration the more likely scenario for the arrival of these earliest North Americans.

The site investigated by Davis and his colleagues appears to have been used for food processing, with the fragmented remains of an extinct horse and a hearth with charcoal-speckled sediments. The study team, who reported their findings in the journal Science, also found the site littered with stone tools, including spearheads.

The artifacts unearthed from the archeological dig at the Cooper’s Ferry site in western Idaho amount to the earliest evidence of people in North America.

Possible early American Pacific coastal migration route.
Possible early American Pacific coastal migration route. Map by Teresa Hall, Oregon State University.

The findings add weight to the hypothesis that initial human migration to the Americas followed a Pacific coastal route rather than through the opening of an inland ice-free corridor, said Davis, a professor of anthropology.

“The Cooper’s Ferry site is located along the Salmon River, which is a tributary of the larger Columbia River basin. Early peoples moving south along the Pacific coast would have encountered the Columbia River as the first place below the glaciers where they could easily walk and paddle in to North America,” Davis said.

“Essentially, the Columbia River corridor was the first off-ramp of a Pacific coast migration route.

“The timing and position of the Cooper’s Ferry site is consistent with and most easily explained as the result of an early Pacific coastal migration.”

Cooper’s Ferry, located at the confluence of Rock Creek and the lower Salmon River, is known by the Nez Perce Tribe as an ancient village site named Nipéhe. Today the site is managed by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Davis first began studying Cooper’s Ferry as an archaeologist for the BLM in the 1990s.

After joining the Oregon State faculty, he partnered with the BLM to establish a summer archaeological field school there, bringing undergraduate and graduate students from Oregon State and elsewhere for eight weeks each summer from 2009 to 2018 to help with the research.

The site includes two dig areas. The published findings are about artifacts found in what is known as area A.

In the lower part of that area, researchers uncovered several hundred artifacts, including stone tools; charcoal; fire-cracked rock; and bone fragments likely from medium-to large-bodied animals, Davis said. They also found evidence of a fire hearth, a food processing station and other pits created as part of domestic activities at the site.

The dig site at Cooper's Ferry.
The dig site at Cooper’s Ferry. © Loren Davis / Oregon State University

Over the last two summers, the team of students and researchers reached the lower layers of the site, which, as expected, contained some of the oldest artifacts uncovered, said Davis, who was lead author on the study.

He worked with a team of researchers at Oxford University, who were able to successfully radiocarbon date several animal bone fragments.

The results showed many artifacts from the lowest layers are associated with dates in the range of 15,000 to 16,000 years old.

“Prior to getting these radiocarbon ages, the oldest things we’d found dated mostly in the 13,000-year range, and the earliest evidence of people in the Americas had been dated to just before 14,000 years old in a handful of other sites,” Davis said.

“When I first saw that the lower archaeological layer contained radiocarbon ages older than 14,000 years, I was stunned but sceptical and needed to see those numbers repeated over and over just to be sure they’re right. So we ran more radiocarbon dates, and the lower layer consistently dated between 14,000 to 16,000 years old.”

Davis’s team also found tooth fragments from an extinct form of horse known to have lived in North America at the end of the last glacial period. These tooth fragments, along with the radiocarbon dating, show that Cooper’s Ferry is the oldest radiocarbon-dated site in North America that includes artifacts associated with the bones of extinct animals, Davis said.

The dig site at Cooper's Ferry. Scientists have 10 years' worth of of excavated artifacts and samples to analyze.
The dig site at Cooper’s Ferry. Scientists have 10 years’ worth of of excavated artifacts and samples to analyze. © Loren Davis / Oregon State University

Around the animal bone fragments there were many stone tools, and nearby was evidence of a hearth or fire pit. It is possible someone had butchered the horse, David told media.

The dates from the oldest artifacts challenge the long-held “Clovis First” theory of early migration to the Americas, which suggested that people crossed from Siberia into North America and traveled down through an opening in the ice sheet near the present-day Dakotas. The ice-free corridor is hypothesized to have opened as early as 14,800 years ago, well after the date of the oldest artifacts found at Cooper’s Ferry, Davis said.

“Now we have good evidence that people were in Idaho before that corridor opened,” he said. “This evidence leads us to conclude that early peoples moved south of continental ice sheets along the Pacific coast.”

The oldest artifacts uncovered at Cooper’s Ferry also are very similar in form to older artifacts found in northeastern Asia, and particularly, Japan, Davis said.

He is now collaborating with Japanese researchers to do further comparisons of artifacts from Japan, Russia and Cooper’s Ferry. He is also awaiting carbon-dating information from artifacts from a second dig location at the Cooper’s Ferry site.

“We have 10 years’ worth of excavated artifacts and samples to analyze,” Davis said. “We anticipate we’ll make other exciting discoveries as we continue to study the artifacts and samples from our excavations.”

Co-authors of the paper include David Sisson, an archaeologist with the BLM; David Madsen of the University of Texas at Austin; Lorena Becerra Valdivia and Thomas Higham of the Oxford University radiocarbon accelerator unit; and other researchers in the US, Japan and Canada. The research was funded in part by the Keystone Archaeological Research Fund and the Bernice Peltier Huber Charitable Trust.

4 thoughts on “Remains of extinct horse found at site of early human occupation in North America

  • September 4, 2019 at 4:53 am
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    when I was in college, we learned that during an ice age, horses crossed an ice bridge between Asia and North America, and hunters followed them across. The hunters killed the horses and went on to hunting other animals, but stayed in North America, so were the first humans there.

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  • September 5, 2019 at 5:04 pm
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    Not long ago they found a 14,000 yr old in a cave in Eastern Oregon. It was an extinct stout legged equine and again in Utah a foal was found, also a unique specie of horse. Our modern equine bones have been found and the earliest agreed on is 7000 years old bones. Southern CA. — Darwin found a very stout legged equine (rhino like) with a horn and did not name it, not knowing where to place it. Just recently they identified it as equine. _humm a unicorn stumpy like a rhino.

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  • September 8, 2019 at 8:14 am
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    An interesting article but little data about the actual horse in question. Would be interested to hear more!

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  • September 8, 2019 at 5:44 pm
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    Anytime anyone from the BLM or USFS is involved in any science subject to interpretation, that science must be held as suspect and called into question.

    The article states:
    “Co-authors of the paper include David Sisson, an archaeologist with the BLM; David Madsen of the University of Texas at Austin; Lorena Becerra Valdivia and Thomas Higham of the Oxford University radiocarbon accelerator unit; and other researchers in the US, Japan and Canada.”

    Clearly, Mr. David Sisson is working for the BLM and as such, within the BLM agenda, in regards to equids in justifying their current fabricated science leading to and supporting their flawed management of native species American wild horses.

    In the written report made to the Congress of the United States titled: “Report to Congress – Management Options for a Sustainable Wild Horse and Burro Program”, the BLM made the manifestly false statement that: “Wild horses and burros have no natural predators…” on page-1 of the ‘Executive Summary’ in paragraph 5 of that Report. (https://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/wildhorse_2018ReporttoCongress.pdf). As they say here in America; ‘BUSTED’

    Any scientist with an ounce of integrity and experience would condemn the statement made by the BLM in said Report, and surely one of their chief scientists has signed-off on that fabrication.

    Anyone with any genuine experience on the North American wilderness landscape knows that all Apex predators on the continent are the evolved predators of equids. FACT

    A recent 5-year Study proves (with forensic evidence) that wild horses are depredated by wolves, mountain lions, coyotes and bears.

    The Study can be read here: https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/6a30c6_98642a78546849f0a94e2687cdf35654.pdf

    Therefore, it is now logical and reasonable to question anything that is provided by, or has been touched, influenced or colored by the authority of the BLM, which now must be held as being ‘suspect’ as flawed or corrupted going forward based on the malfeasance as evidenced by their production of a so-called Report that contains obviously fabricated, false data.

    William E. Simpson II – Naturalist / Rancher – Wild Horse Ranch
    Siskiyou County, CA.

    More honest research about wild horses and their effects on Wilderness Areas and Wildfire can be found at: http://www.WHFB.us

    Reply

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