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News Release, Kansas Geological Survey, Feb. 14, 2005

Discovery Could Change Dates of Humans on the Great Plains

LAWRENCE--Bones of now-extinct animals and a rock fragment discovered last summer in northwestern Kansas could rewrite the history of humans on the Great Plains.

The bones, which appear to have been fractured by humans, were collected from a site in Sherman County, Kansas, and studied by scientists at the Kansas Geological Survey, the University of Kansas, and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Dated by carbon-14 methods at 12,200 years old, the bones could be the oldest evidence of human occupation in Kansas, and may be the oldest evidence of humans on the Great Plains.

The research was conducted by archeologist Steven Holen at the Denver Museum, archeological geologist Rolfe Mandel at the Kansas Survey, and archeologist Jack Hofman at the KU Anthropology Department.

Scientists previously dated the earliest confirmed evidence of humans on the Great Plains at 11,000 to 11,500 years ago. That was based on mammoth kill sites in western North America, including the first find near Greeley, Colorado, excavated by the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

The new discoveries could challenge that benchmark.

"If we have evidence of people here more than 12,000 years ago, we have to rethink our ideas about human colonization of North America," said Hofman.

The finds include bones from a now-extinct Ice Age camel and two mammoths. In addition, a rock fragment found with the bones might be a piece of a stone hammer.

"Fracture patterns on the bones suggest they were broken by humans who may have been processing them for marrow or to make bone tools," said Holen. "The radiocarbon dating shows that these finds are a thousand years older than the best documented evidence of humans on the Great Plains."

The location was probably a camp site that was occupied for a few days or weeks by a small group of nomadic peoples.

"This location has the potential for shedding new light on the timing of human entry into the Western Hemisphere," said Mandel. "This could be the oldest site of human activity on the Great Plains."

In addition to the older material, the site has produced artifacts that are about 10,900 to 11,000 years ago, which scientists refer to as Clovis age. Those artifacts include stone flakes, tools, and pieces of mammoth bone. The material probably represents a hunting camp. Some of the tools were made of stone from the Texas panhandle, suggesting the group was highly mobile.

"Clovis materials have been found in Kansas before, but usually on gravel bars along streams," said Mandel. "This site represents the first central Great Plains discovery of Clovis-period stone tools that are still in place."

The fact that both Clovis-age material and possible pre-Clovis material were found at the same location is probably no accident, say the scientists.

"Something, probably water, kept attracting people back to this location," said Mandel. "There were likely seeps and springs here that attracted game animals, and then people, to this spot.

"These people were always on the move. That's why archeological material from them is so sparse, and why this location is so important."

Mammoth bone at the site was originally discovered in 1976, and excavated in the 1970s and 1980s by the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. The recently discovered materials were recovered during digs in the summer of 2003 and 2004, conducted jointly by the Kansas Geological Survey and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

The work was supported by the Odyssey Archaeological Research Fund, an endowed program at KU with a directive to search for the earliest evidence of humans in the Great Plains.

Additional excavations are scheduled for the summer of 2005.


Links of interest to this article:
Denver Museum of Nature & Science
Dept. of Anthropology, University of Kansas

Story by Rex Buchanan, (785) 864-2106
For more information, contact Rolfe Mandel, (785) 864-2171
Kansas Geological Survey, Public Outreach