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By Leslie S. Pfeiffer, Associate Editor
Photos courtesty of University of Oregon website

I was fortunate to be invited to attend the Paleo American Origins Workshop in Austin, Texas February 14­16, 2008. With 47 leading archaeologists from the United States, Canada, Russia, and Denmark in attendance, the purpose was to attempt to answer the questions surrounding the first people to migrate to the Americas, including when, where, and how they came. Although the conference ended with no consensus reached, one of the most promising reports was on the Paisley Five Mile Point rockshelter in south central Oregon.


View of the opening of one of the Paisley caves.

The Paisley caves are located in the Summer Lake Basin near Paisley, about 220 miles southeast of Eugene on the eastern side of the Cascade Range. The series of eight caves are westward-facing, wave-cut shelters on the highest shoreline of pluvial Lake Chewaucan, which rose and fell in periods of greater precipitation during the Pleistocene.

Dr. Dennis Jenkins of the University of Oregon-Eugene, and Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark gave the presentation. In 2002, Dr. Jenkins led the excavations of this series of shallow caves overlooking an ancient lake bed in the Great Basin.


Eske Willerslev, Professor in the Biology Department at the University of Copenhagen and leader of the Ancient DNA and Evolution Group.

This site was occupied at least twice during the Late Pleistocene, with the older dates being from human coprolites (fossilized human excrement) at about 14,000 years ago. There was also a mountain sheep mandible with butcher marks dating to 14.000 years ago, a hammerstone with horse DNA on it, and cordage (tightly woven grass sewing thread) dated at 12,880 years ago, which would be from the second occupation and possibly associated with an obsidian stemmed lanceolate point found nearby. Bones were found of fox, horse, camel, bison, swan, goose, sage grouse, mammoth, mountain sheep, and also evidence that biscuit root was a dietary staple.


Human coprolites

Dr. Willerslev is the DNA expert, and he extracted human DNA from six of the fourteen coprolites with genetic signatures typical of Native Americans. Human hair was also found in the coprolites. Other than the one stemmed point there was no lithic material found. Sage grouse DNA was also present in the 14,000 year old coprolites.

Critics of the site have a few problems with the evidence: 1) there is contamination, with DNA from people of European origin present; 2) there is no diagnostic lithic material; 3) there is canid (dog, coyote, or wolf) DNA in three of the coprolites, suggesting the coprolites may be canid.

Dr. Jenkins answered, “Whether the coprolites are human or canine is irrelevant, since for a canine to swallow human hair people had to be present in that environment”.


Dennis Jenkins in his University of Oregon lab, displaying a drawer full of artifacts, including ropage and threads, found in the Paisley caves.  Photo by Jim Barlow.

Proponents of the site and its pre-Clovis evidence say that the Paisley Five Mile Point rockshelter supports the theory that the first Americans used a Pacific Coast route, because the inland route would have been blocked by ice sheets 14,000 years ago.