Modern testing finds humans may have lived in Harney County 18,000 years ago

Rickrock Draw enamel

Oregon archaeologists have found evidence that humans lived roughly 100 miles east of Bend more than 18,000 years ago. It’s believed to be one of the oldest sites of human occupation in North America.

The humans occupied the Rimrock Draw Rockshelter near what is now Riley, Oregon, in Harney County, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

BLM says the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History Archaeological Field School has been excavating at the Rimrock Draw Rockshelter. Excavation has been happening since 2011.

“Discoveries at the site have included stone tools and extinct-mammal tooth fragments from the Pleistocene era. The pieces of tooth enamel are identified as bison and camel,” BLM said in its announcement.

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Camel teeth fragments were found under a layer of volcanic ash from an eruption of Mount St. Helens that was dated over 15,000 years ago, BLM said.

Rimrock Draw Camelops cross-section

Rimrock Draw Camelops cross-section. Courtesy University of Oregon

The team also found two finely crafted orange agate scrapers. One, found in 2012, had preserved bison blood residue on it. Another, found in 2015, was buried deeper in the ash.

“Natural layering of the rockshelter sediments suggests the scrapers are older than both the volcanic ash and camel teeth,” BLM said.

Through radiocarbon dating on the tooth enamel, researchers concluded the samples date back 18,250 years. BLM says that date, in association with stone tools, suggests that Rimrock Draw Rockshelter is one of the oldest human-occupation locations on the continent.

Cooper’s Ferry, is another archaeological site on BLM-managed public lands in western Idaho. BLM says research there suggests human occupation dating back more than 16,000 years.

BLM says this discovery serves as a reminder to the public to treat the land well and leave what you find. Damage, destruction, or removal at an archaeological site is a federal crime.


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