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Carbon dating shows humans were living in western Idaho 2,500 years earlier than previously thought

Spear points carved from different stone types into Christmas-tree shapes are believed to date back 16,000 years
Loren Davis
Stone projectile points discovered buried inside and outside of pit features at the Cooper’s Ferry site

Oregon State University archeological professor Loren Davis has been working on the Cooper’s Ferry site for 25 years. The excavation area is currently owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management, but is on traditional Nez Perce land that the tribe says is where the ancient village of Nipéhe stood.

The area is in western Idaho on the Salmon River, close to where Oregon, Idaho and Washington meet.

Davis said the point spears carved from different rocks into the shapes of Christmas trees were likely attached to a wooden handle used to kill animals. The spears were found in two pits about 25 feet below the Earth’s surface.

“The Cooper's Ferry site is significant because it's very early evidence and it shows us detailed information about things like the technologies that these early peoples were using,” Davis said.

Davis said the area shows humans were cooking and making tools.

“We find a lot of bone fragments of animals. We find charcoal; We find pieces of fire-cracked rocks,” he said. “So probably what we're seeing is that someone had set up a camp at the site. And we're just finding some aspects of the things that they left behind.”

It wasn’t clear until now when these humans were in this area, but carbon-14 dating of the animal bones found around the site date the activity 15,700 years ago. That’s about 2,500 years earlier than previously believed by scientists.

The discoveries date to the Pleistocene Era, when the Earth was in an ice age. Similar spears have been found in Hokkaido, Japan.

For now, scientists say these are the oldest weapons found in North America.

“I don't anticipate that we found the very earliest first evidence of people in the Americas. We have just simply found the thing that,right now, might be the earliest,” Davis explained. “Somebody else might make a discovery tomorrow and find something earlier.”

The findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal, ScienceAdvances.

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