Canku Ota Logo

Canku Ota

Canku Ota Logo

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


October 18, 2003 - Issue 98


pictograph divider


State Dig Site Helps Change Habitation Timeline Theory

by Diane Clay
Copyright 2003, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
credits: Copyright 2003, The Oklahoma Publishing Company The caption that was published with this story is as follows: Evidence presented in the past several years by anthropologists suggests people lived in North America 20,000 years earlier than scientists believed. This artist's rendition shows what the northwestern Oklahoma dig site might have looked like 34,000 years ago, based on the evidence found. - ILLUSTRATION BY MOLLIE ERKENBRACK/OKLAHOMAN GRAPHICS

Nine miles north of Freedom on a half-acre of grassland owned by the Burnhams sits the remains of an archaeological dig that changed science.

There, 17 years ago, Gene Burnham was digging a pond 10 miles from the Cimarron River when he unearthed a skull.

The Burnhams called Don Wyckoff with the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey.

Wyckoff made the three-hour trip to northwestern Oklahoma and found a bison skull that was 20,000 to 75,000 years old. It was only the third such bison found in the Southern Plains. Wyckoff was pretty excited.

Little did he know that what the Burnhams had found was only the beginning of what he and colleagues would discover when they dug a little deeper.

Wyckoff elicited help from researchers at the University of Kansas and volunteers to help him excavate the area. He wanted to know as much as he could about Oklahoma before the last Ice Age.

He found what he expected to find: bones from rabbits, horses, mammoths, camels and large turtles. But about 15 feet below the surface, the diggers found soil that dated to about 34,000 B.C.

In the soil, students found flakes of flint that appeared to be shaped and then discarded when sharpening a tool. There were 52 of them. They also discovered broken tools.

Wyckoff realized what he'd found, but he didn't want to admit it.

The evidence meant people were here, in Oklahoma and North America, 34,000 to 36,000 years ago — long before the Clovis and Folsom people appeared in the American Southwest about 11,600 years ago.

"If I was younger, I would have walked away. It made us look crazy. I don't think I would have wanted to risk my career on this," Wyckoff, 64, said.

"But being at the age I am, I guess I can live with it. We tried to do the best work we could and let the evidence speak for itself."

The new idea had few supporters, and most of them were researchers who had done work at a site in South America that eventually helped back Wyckoff's find.

As is typical with new theories, it took nearly two decades for archaeologists to accept the change.

The idea has become the prevailing theory in the past two years, as multiple sites in South America, as well as greater understanding of the geology at the time, helped create a picture archaeologists couldn't deny.

It revolutionized research into one of the mysteries of American archeology: How did people get here in the first place? And where did they came from?

The old idea, devised in the 1930s, held that when the Bering Sea was low enough to create a land bridge from what is now Russia to Alaska, and a glacier had receded enough to allow passage, people went from Asia to North America.

Then, the group was believed to have moved south into the southern United States and into Central and South America.

This seemed plausible and probably still is part of the puzzle, but it doesn't explain how people got to Oklahoma long before the Ice Age or how they made it to Chile and other parts of South America 13,000 years ago — more than 1,000 years before they were supposed to have arrived in the southwestern United States.

"The evidence right now indicates multiple migrations at multiple times from many different people," said Tom Dillehay, whose site at Monte Verde, Chile, is the most famous pre-Clovis site in the world.

Dillehay, a professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky, began his work at Monte Verde in 1977, thinking he was working a paleontological dig.

He found footprints and other human traces from 12,500 years ago and is working to verify similar artifacts from 33,000 years ago.

"It means people would have had to have been here long before 12,000 years ago," he said.

"If you accept the model that people moved into South America through North America, then you have to have people in North America earlier."

Since Dillehay's Monte Verde discovery, scientists have found even older human remains at sites in Brazil, the Andes Mountains and elsewhere in Chile.

Most archaeologists accept that people were in the Americas long before the Clovis group, but there are still no definitive answers on how they got here.

Along with the Bering land bridge theory, some scientists believe people quickly hopped down the west coast. Others believe people used primitive boats; a few have proposed that groups of early Americans came from Europe.

Robson Bonnichsen, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans, said there is evidence of humans on several islands off the California coast that bolsters the boat theory, and work is being done off the coast of British Columbia on coastal movement.

"This is a great time because we had a controlling theory for a long time, and we don't now. So, people are coming up with several new ideas," Bonnichsen said.

"I think the problem has changed forever."

Wyckoff is preparing to publish a book on the Oklahoma Burnham site this fall and wants to begin digs at 15 other Ice Age pond deposit sites in Woods County, Woodward County, Harper County and Canadian County.

The Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History hired Wyckoff as an archaeology curator in 1996 and opened an exhibit on his research in September 2000.

Dillehay, after becoming an unexpected symbol of the new revolution, now studies the effects of El Nino in Chile.

"We have far more questions than answers at this time," Dillehay said. "It's a much, much more complex issue than we ever imagined."

Freedom, OK Map

Maps by Travel

pictograph divider

Home PageFront PageArchivesOur AwardsAbout Us

Kid's PageColoring BookCool LinksGuest BookEmail Us


pictograph divider

  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

Canku Ota Logo   Canku Ota Logo

The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the

Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 of Paul C. Barry.

All Rights Reserved.

Site Meter
Thank You

Valid HTML 4.01!