About 60 miles south of Bend, University of Oregon archeology students are digging into a series of caves. It’s dirty, challenging work.
The man in charge has been at it for decades, piecing together the lives of the people who lived here as long as 13,000 years ago.
But this is Dr. Dennis Jenkins’ last full-time summer session at the dig site. He’s retiring.
We caught up with him and his students recently at the Connelly Caves on the fringe of the Silver Lake Basin.
Here, the students from Oregon and the University of Nevada-Reno dig into — and carefully chart and chronicle — bits of the past.
“You are not here to dig and learn to to dig. You are here to become an archaeologist,” says Jenkins. “There’s a huge difference between finding artifacts and becoming an archaeologist. You have to put that context together, it’s absolutely vital to what we do.
He looks back in time for us to a very different natural setting — an earlier age when these caves were a place of shelter.
“What we’re looking at right now is not what was here,” said Jenkins. “All the way across the valley would have been you know open and some vegetated water where the bullrushes and the cattails are coming up through the shallower water and those are all edible.”
“We’ve found villages that were clearly placed to be right in the middle of that fresh food that nature was providing.”
The diggers find proof of the ancient diets every day as students carefully scrape away soil on the one square meter they’re assigned for the six week session.
“Then we’ve got groundstone that you’ve been seeing here. With mammoth or mastodon blood on it. We can actually extract the proteins right off of the stone tool. Right out of the pores of that stone.”
Everything. Every artifact. Every handful of soil. Every out-of-place stone is recorded, mapped and described in detail.
One thing that we unearthed is the good doctor’s nickname. We’re told some scholars call him “Dr. Poop.”
Jenkins laughs at the name.
“That’s because of the coprolites. And finding human DNA in coprolites that were over 14,000 years old,” says Jenkins.
Coprolites are fossilized feces.
For Jenkins, everything found here might tell a story.
“Smoke is going up and staining the surfaces. Is it possible DNA is preserved in that smoke? In that rat urine up there? Yes, it is possible! Do we know that? No. Has anybody looked? No. So we’ve gotta preserve this stuff for the future. Every site needs to be preserved.”
With retirement looming, Jenkins concedes this type of research has its limits.
“You are never going to find the first person who walked onto this continent.”
But he also believes digging up the past should continue well into the future when new theories and technologies might pull new history out of this age-old dirt.
“I am never going to completely dig a site. It will always have something left behind for the next generation.”
Jenkins tells us the dig at the Connley Caves will likely wrap up next summer or the following year.