Little Did I Know: Fort Rock’s role in finding when humans came to N. America


Recently in New Mexico, some human footprints were found that are forcing scientists to completely rethink their decades-old ideas about when humans first migrated to North America. Believe it or not, Fort Rock, Oregon, plays a big role in those developing theories.

“You know, when we look at the migration of peoples out of Africa, Homo sapiens, our earliest Homo sapiens fossil to date, comes from Morocco,” said Michel Waller, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Central Oregon Community College. “And then the next oldest is Ethiopia. And it seems that for at least 100, maybe 150,000 years, sapiens are found only within the African continent.”

Waller adds that, “About 125,000 years ago, we start to spread out.”

And boy, did we ever start to spread out. Some went north toward Europe. Some headed east toward Asia. Those that headed toward Asia eventually ended up in North America.

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But when? That depends on when you ask that question. One hundred years ago, we thought humans came here around 5,000 years ago. Until one day, Fort Rock, Oregon, blew that estimation clean out of the water.

“After Luther Cressman found the sagebrush sandals in the Fort Rock cave back in the 1930s, 1940s, every rancher with a shovel started digging around out in the desert looking for ancient cultural resources,” Waller said.

And those sandals would go down in history as one of the first things ever carbon-dated after its invention in 1950. It’s a practice that is commonplace now.

“When those sagebrush sandals were initially dated, one of the first things to be dated using radiocarbon dating techniques by Willard Libby back in, I think it was 1951 … when we got the date back there of 10,000 years, that almost doubled our time that we thought people had been in the Americas,” Waller said.

Fort Rock Sandals

And for decades now, we’ve been operating under the belief that humans came over an ice bridge during the last ice age when an ice-free corridor opened up around 15,000 years ago.

That is until a man went for a walk in Harney County.

“One of the folks from the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) was just kind of cruising around out there and found an area with really tall sagebrush, which suggests that there was at least one time water there and deep roots. And when he went to kind of check it out, he noticed that the soil hadn’t been disturbed,” Waller said.

The Rimrock Draw Rock Shelter, as it is called today, began to challenge some of the scientists’ beliefs about North American human migration.

“I think that the last date that I saw that they had pulled out of there was over 16,000 radiocarbon years. So, you know, between 16,000 and 17,000 years old,” Waller said.

But all those decades of beliefs came crashing down overnight just this past September when some footprints discovered in White Sands, New Mexico were double confirmed to be more than 20,000 years old.

“So the White Sands area in New Mexico, it’s a great site because we have lots of preservation due to the environment. It’s incredibly dry. Not a lot of wind, not a lot of water to kind of wipe clean some of the things that we found. So there have been all kinds of footprints down there,” Waller said.

We knew there were mammoths and sloths in that area at that time, but until their discovery in 2009, nobody thought there were human footprints to be found.

“And so to find human footprints that date back to, you know, between 23,000 and 26,000 years … that’s again another chapter in the human migration around the globe. And it does change our dates. It does change our perspectives,” Waller said.

This makes us completely rethink all of our theories about human migration to North America. But even more, think about this: geological time is looked at way different than human time.

“You know, in archeology, we throw around things like 23,000 years and 16,000 years. And, you know, it doesn’t sound like they’re that far apart, but that’s 7,000 years, right? And we’ve only been counting years for 2023 of them. And some of those are retroactive. So that’s a huge chunk of time,” Waller said.

That’s right. The time difference between humans in Harney County and humans in New Mexico is literally the same length as all of recorded human history so far.

“We’re still writing this story. It hasn’t been fully fleshed out. We’re finding more things now and in the last 20 years than we found in all of history before that,” Waller said.

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