Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Were native Idahoans mammoth hunters?

Archeologist says new evidence points to ‘yes’

Express Staff Writer

Recent re-examination of 12,000-year-old artifacts from a lava cave west of Idaho Falls indicates that, contrary to prevailing opinion, Native Americans in southern Idaho hunted mammoths, a BLM archeologist told a small audience at The Community Library in Ketchum on Thursday.

Suzann Henrikson, who works at the BLM office in Burley, said that about two years ago, she began studying a collection of mammoth bones and stone spear points stored at Idaho State University in Pocatello. The artifacts had been excavated in the late 1970s from Owl Cave, a lava tube 15 miles west of Idaho Falls. The bones and tools had been found together about 18 feet below the surface.

Henrikson said prevailing scientific belief is that mammoths went extinct throughout the Great Basin area before people began hunting them. However, she said, the artifacts from Owl Cave indicate otherwise.

She said the spear points are from the Folsom tradition, which dates back to about 12,000 years ago. The first Folsom point, found near Folsom, N.M., in 1927, provided indisputable evidence that humans had reached North America before the end of the Ice Age. Clovis points, discovered a few years later near Clovis, N.M., proved their existence here back to at least 13,000 years ago.

Henrikson said that about a year ago, she had three of the Owl Cave spear points analyzed by the recently developed science of protein residue analysis. She said the residue on one of the points matched the protein makeup of modern elephants.

"We were incredibly thrilled," she said.

Henrikson said that information has not yet been published in a scientific journal. Nor, she said, was other important information published at the time of the Owl Cave excavations. She said that includes maps showing the intermingling of the mammoth bones and the stone points, and the fact that the bones had tool marks on them.

Henrikson said the Owl Cave evidence could have "tremendous impact" on scientific thinking about the timing of the peopling of the Americas and that of late Pleistocene megafauna extinctions.

She said that at the end of the Ice Age, when Idaho's climate was cooler and wetter than it is now but had begun to dry out, Owl Cave was about 12 miles from a large lake. She said that habitat could have allowed mammoths to have existed longer there than they did in most other areas of the desert West.

An alternative determination may be that Native Americans were hunting mammoths in southern Idaho sooner than paleontologists believe, as they were on the Great Plains. She said caches of Clovis points have been discovered in the Great Basin area, but never in conjunction with mammoth remains.

"We strongly suspect that we'll find that evidence, and Owl Cave may be the site," she said.

Henrikson said she is in the process of getting her recent findings published, an event that she hopes will result in funding to carry out further excavations at Owl Cave. She said the collection of additional evidence could help paleontologists determine whether mammoths existed longer than has been thought, or if human hunters in this area were pursuing them earlier than believed.

"They're looking at these areas all over the West to answer these questions," she said. "The [Owl Cave] site has tremendous potential, but it hasn't been realized yet."

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