Fossil Feces Is Earliest Evidence of N. America Humans

David Wolman
for National Geographic News
April 3, 2008
It's no load of crap: Scientists have discovered the earliest evidence of humans in North America—in 14,300-year-old fossilized feces.

The discovery of the preserved scat fragments, known as coprolites, levels a major blow against the popular Clovis-first theory of how people first came to the Americas.

Since the summer of 2002, University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis Jenkins and his research team have uncovered about 700 coprolite samples from a group of bone-dry caves in the desert of central Oregon, including several from humans.

After repeated radiocarbon dating and DNA analyses, the scientists concluded that the oldest of the human-produced material was deposited at least a thousand years before the so-called Clovis culture, according to a paper appearing in this week's issue of the journal Science.

"Clearly Older Than Clovis"

The popular Clovis-first model (named for the New Mexico town where artifacts of a certain type were first found) holds that humans arrived in North America via the Bering land bridge that once connected Alaska to Asia. They then walked southward through an ice-free corridor during a period of glacial retreat.

For a long time, that model was king, ensconced in countless high school textbooks. But in the 1990s, an ancient settlement at Monte Verde, Chile, was found to be 14,500 years old.

Monte Verde posed a problem for the original theory, because the ice-free corridor hadn't formed by 14,500 years ago. Travelers must have arrived some other way and at an earlier date.

(Related: "Clovis People Not First Americans, Study Shows" [February 23, 2007].)

But Monte Verde remained an isolated case.

"People who don't like Monte Verde said, Well, it's only one site, and we need to replicate that," explained Don Grayson, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington.

"The importance of the find at Oregon's Paisley Caves is that it is that second site."

What's more, the researchers have done "exquisite" radiocarbon dating.

"It's clearly older than Clovis," Grayson said.

Covering All the Bases

It's not the first claim to fame for Oregon's Paisley 5 Mile Point Caves, which in the 1930s were the site of extensive excavation. At the time, archaeologists claimed to have found secure evidence of human artifacts alongside the remains of extinct mammals.

No one believed it, and they were right not to, Grayson said, because the methodology was flawed.

"Jenkins and his group went back to Paisley to see if there was still material worth excavating, and to do the job right," he said.

Jenkins said that in the past, researchers had made several claims about pre-Clovis sites, but "they were all proven wrong."

"I wanted to be really cautious, because this site is simply too important," he said.

To verify that that the coprolites they found were human and date accurately, Jenkins enlisted DNA experts to conduct multiple tests on the samples.

Results indicated that the people in those caves were of the Native American founding genetic groups, or haplogroups, A2 and B2.

This means researchers must recalibrate when humans first migrated to the New World, Jenkins said.

Ideal For Study

In his lab in Eugene, Oregon, Jenkins opens a drawer to show one of the samples. The plastic bag is labeled with a bunch of numbers and letters—a meticulous coding system for tracking which cave the sample came from and where and from what depth it was excavated.

The coprolite itself looks like a hardened clump of brown mud of a, uh, familiar shape.

For archaeology, coprolites are ideal remains, Jenkins said. Bones can be controversial, because indigenous people may take offense to excavation. Bones also calcify over time, making it difficult to extract viable DNA.

In contrast, no one takes offense to examining stool samples, which are filled with cellular material shed by the harsh environment of the colon.

"You don't think of it," Jenkins said, "but you're leaving behind genetic signatures every morning."

The University of Washington's Grayson added: "No one would have predicted that the next Monte Verde would be based on turds."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.