COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M University researchers say artifacts found in Idaho that are about 16,000 years old are a substantial discovery that indicates the first Americans may have entered by the Pacific coast.
The study in Idaho was led by Loren Davis from Oregon State University, who said the research might also show connections between early Americans and Japan. While A&M researchers were not involved in the excavation, professors at the university’s Center for the Study of the First Americans said the research is important to the field as a whole.
Center Director and Anthropology Professor Michael Waters said Davis’ discovery adds to growing evidence that Americans may have traveled the Pacific rather than other theories that suggest people came through an inland corridor. This is because at the time when Cooper’s Ferry, Idaho, was occupied, the ice-free corridor was blocked by massive ice sheets in Canada.
“What they found was revolutionary and will help us provide a new understanding and chapter for the first Americans,” Waters said.
Waters said most of the artifacts found by Davis’ team were between 14,400 and 15,000 years ago, which means that more research is needed to determine if the artifacts that were 16,000 years old were outliers.
Researchers at the Center for the Study of the First Americans are working on revolutionary discoveries of their own.
The center was established in 1981 at the University of Maine, before it was moved to Oregon State University in 1994 and finally to Texas A&M in 2002. Its history has helped the center become what Waters said is one of the most established programs of its kind in the nation.
Located on the second floor of the university’s anthropology building, the center includes an office suite and laboratories that are stocked with microscopes, sediment analyzers and collections of projectile point casts. The center employs an office manager and undergraduate and graduate students. It has three full-time faculty members who lead excavations.
CSFA Associate Director and Anthropology Professor Ted Goebel said everyone has their projects, but all the researchers at CSFA are tied together by the mission to explain how the first humans dispersed from the old world to the new world during the ice age.
This summer, on their ongoing quest for answers, CSFA faculty and A&M students continued their excavations and surveys in the Great Basin, Texas, Florida and Alaska.
Since 2016, CSFA faculty member and Associate Anthropology Professor Kelly Graf has been excavating the McDonald Creek site — one of the oldest archaeological sites in Alaska. The site may document the spread of humans from Siberia to Alaska across the Bering Land Bridge.
Graf said 30,000 artifacts have been found at the site, and most of them indicate that it was a domestic area rather than the more commonly discovered hunting camps. This summer, they found remains from what might be the oldest domesticated dog, but will not know for sure until the DNA tests are completed later this fall. Graf said she will return to the site next year for more work.
Goebel’s research areas have included Northeast Asia, Alaska and the Great Basin. Goebel said he and Graf frequently work together on projects. His specialties include stone tools and technology, while Graf knows more about geology and paleo-environments.
In addition to faculty research, CSFA has 800 members who pay for the quarterly Mammoth Trumpet magazine. The publication is a collection of breaking news on discoveries about research on the first Americans. Members also receive discounts on books that the center offers.
The center also produces the annual Paleo America journal, which Goebel edits.
Goebel and Graf also do what they can to spark student interest in first American research. Together, they teach a two-week long, CSFA-sponsored class at the end of each summer called the Archeology Road Show. About 16 undergraduates in the anthropology department go to archeological sites from the ice age time period to learn about the environment, the archeological record and how to identify plants in the areas.
“It is a way to engage undergraduates in the field for the first time,” Goebel said. “If they do well, we try to engage them in the research in the labs by volunteering, then with a part-time job and then we try to get them in the field for excavations.”
But on a broader scale, the center helps A&M experts receive the funding they need and stay connected with first American researchers across the nation, Graf said.
“The center has a deep history of doing cutting edge first Americans research,” Graf said. “It’s nice to be a part of that and to continue that history.”
Waters said the center’s past is dotted with dozens of interesting discoveries and excavations, each adding to the story of the first Americans.
“It is a slow, incremental process, of going to sites and investigating,” Waters said. “Sometimes you find something startling and new, sometimes you don’t. You take it one field season at a time.”
More information on the center, as well as archives of the Mammoth Trumpet and image galleries of archaeological sites and artifacts can be found at csfa.tamu.edu.