Cooper’s Ferry Site Yields Oldest Stone Weaponry Found in the Americas
Examination of stone tools excavated at the Cooper Ferry’s site in Idaho has revealed the presence of humans in North America 16,000 years ago. Having left behind distinctive Clovis points, their presence suggested that humans travelled along the coast using boats, rather than the ice-sheet hypothesis, also called the ‘Clovis First’ hypothesis. Now, these lethally sharp projectile points could represent the oldest evidence of the first tool technology brought to the Americas, thousands of years older than any previously found in the Americas.
Cooper’s Ferry: Projectile Points and a Great Place to Live
The study, published last week in the journal Science Advances, details how the first people coming south along the Pacific coastline entered North America. Loren Davis, an anthropology professor at Oregon State University, Corvallis, also an archaeologist, has led the new study, which describes how turning south of the ice would have brought these ancient humans to the Columbia River, and then heading upstream finally to Cooper’s Ferry.
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Overview of the Cooper’s Ferry site in the lower Salmon River canyon of western Idaho, USA. (Oregon State University)
Cooper’s Ferry is situated at a higher elevation than the rest of the landscape, left relatively unscathed by devastating floods and avalanches that destroyed or buried neighboring valleys. Over the centuries, people obviously felt this was a place they could keep coming back to and settle.
In total, 13 full and fragmentary projectile points were found, razor sharp and ranged from half an inch to 2 inches long. After rigorous radiocarbon dating, it was ascertained that they are roughly 15,700 years old, a full 3,000 years older than the oldest Clovis points found through North America. It also places them 2,300 years older than the points previously found at the Cooper’s Ferry site.
“From a scientific point of view, these discoveries add very important details about what the archaeological record of the earliest peoples of the Americas looks like. It’s one thing to say, ‘We think that people were here in the Americas 16,000 years ago;’ it’s another thing to measure it by finding well-made artifacts they left behind,” Professor Davis explained in an Oregon State University release.
Cross Continental Connection?
What struck Professor Davis was not just the age of these points, similar to projectile points found in Hokkaido, Japan, that date to 16,000-20,000 years ago. The discovery in Idaho shows a cross continental connection between the ice age peoples of Northeast Asia and North America, at a time when the ice cover across the earth was seemingly ubiquitous. This area in Idaho has been inhabited by the Nez Perce people, who refer to it as Nipéhe, for an ancient village there.
Some sixteen thousand years ago, the river was in an ice-free corridor, nestled in a glacial amphitheater in the winding up period of the Pleistocene ‘Ice Age’. At this time, an overland route into the North American continent from the Bering Strait, as is popularly believed, would have been blocked by massive sheets, reports Science.
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(A) Map showing the location of the Cooper’s Ferry site in the context of Pacific Northwest environments at 16,000 years ago. (Davis, Loren G/Science)
This is contrary to what other researchers have suggested when they’ve argued that the earliest migrants from Siberia travelled across the Bering Strait to North America some 13,000-14,000 years ago. In the same vein, most archaeologists had believed that the Clovis points found on the continent date to the continent’s first settlers. This no longer seems to be the case.
“The earliest peoples of North America possessed cultural knowledge that they used to survive and thrive over time. Some of this knowledge can be seen in the way people made stone tools, such as the projectile points found at the Cooper’s Ferry site,” argued Davis. “By comparing these points with other sites of the same age and older, we can infer the spatial extents of social networks where this technological knowledge was shared between peoples.”
In fact, in recent years, numerous sites with artifacts older than the ‘Clovis First’ hypothesis have been found. A site called Monte Verde at the southern tip of Chile is at least 15,000 years old, a sinkhole in Florida yielded a knife and butchered mammoth bone more than 14,500 years old. The Gault site in Texas has yielded thousands of artifacts between 16,000 to 20,000 years old!
Moving forward, what has particularly piqued the curiosity of the archaeologists is to ascertain why perfectly good projectile points were just thrown away and discarded. This will be aided by greater data from more coastal and northwestern North American sites, which will help cement the East Asian connection too.
Top image: Stone projectile points discovered buried inside and outside of pit features at the Cooper’s Ferry site, Area B. Source:Oregon State University
By Sahir Pandey
Davis, L.G. Dating of a large tool assemblage at the Cooper’s Ferry site (Idaho, USA) to ~15,785 cal yr B.P. extends the age of stemmed points in the Americas. Sciences Advances, 8(51). Available at: DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.ade1248.
Price, M. 2022. Deadly sharp points found in Idaho could be first American-made tools. Available at: https://www.science.org/content/article/deadly-sharp-points-found-idaho-could-be-first-american-made-tools.
Rosbach, M. 2022. Available at: https://today.oregonstate.edu/news/oregon-state-archaeologists-uncover-oldest-known-projectile-points-americas.