miles north of Freedom on a half-acre of grassland owned by the
Burnhams sits the remains of an archaeological dig that changed
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
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
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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
He found footprints and other human traces from 12,500 years ago
and is working to verify similar artifacts from 33,000 years ago.
means people would have had to have been here long before 12,000
years ago," he said.
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.
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,"
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
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.
have far more questions than answers at this time," Dillehay said.
"It's a much, much more complex issue than we ever imagined."