16,000 years!

Cooper’s Ferry on Salmon River.White arrow points to the site.
Image credit: Davis 
et al, doi: 10.1126/science.aax9830.

In the news this week: the story of on an archeological dig on the Salmon River at Cooper’s Ferry. It’s an ancient village site the Nez Perce call  Nipe’che. The dig leader is Dr. Loren Davis of Oregon State University, with staff from the University and scientists from the UK, Canada, and Japan. It’s been going on for some years, with carbon dated artifacts from a first site in hand and work on a second nearby site in progress. 16,000 years is the reason it made headlines this week—well, headlines in some places. In a gushy blog post, Craig Medred writes that:

“Archeologists in Idaho appear to have put another nail in the coffin of the long-held but rapidly dying theory that the first humans to arrive in North America crossed the Bering Land Bridge connecting Asia and Alaska and kept hiking south.”

He goes on: “Scientists working the Cooper’s Landing archeological site on Friday published a paper in Science reporting they had radiocarbon-dated projectile points there to sometime between 16,560 and 15,280 years before present.” And he notes that the projectile points found at Cooper’s Landing, or Cooper’s Ferry, match those of sites in Japan from the same era. (https://craigmedred.news/2019/09/01/the-paddlers/ for the full article)

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I’ve often wondered why the academy has stubbornly held onto the view that the original human inhabitants of the “new world” arrived over a land bridge from Asia. Common sense and the historical record about the way people move tell us that for much of human history travel by water was easier than travel by land.

Archeologist Davis explains that: “The Cooper’s Ferry site is located along the Salmon River, which is a tributary of the larger Columbia River basin. Early peoples moving south along the Pacific coast would have encountered the Columbia River as the first place below the glaciers where they could easily walk and paddle in to North America. Essentially, the Columbia River corridor was the first off-ramp of a Pacific coast migration route.”

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In 2000, when I was still the director at Fishtrap, we decided to do a winter conference on “Living and Writing on the Edge.” We looked for writers who were adventurers by inclination or chance, and spent a winter weekend at Wallowa Lake in conversation with them.

I don’t know how we found Jon Turk, but he was the real deal, an over-educated scientist who had grown disenchanted with his life and work, and so dropped his job and headed off in a sea kayak to paddle and sail around South America. It didn’t work out, but he was undaunted, and the journeys continued until he had grist for a book, Cold Oceans: Adventures in Kayak, Rowboat, and Dogsled. 

Jon Turk got in touch with us later as he traveled with a new book—In the Wake of the Jomon: Stone Age Mariners and a Voyage Across the Pacific. In 1999 and 2000, he and some partners had sailed a small trimaran and paddled a sea kayak from Japan to Alaska–not in one swoop, but over time, as it might have occurred thousands of years ago. The book tells the story of the modern expedition, looks back at Stone Age mariners who paddled these waters over 10,000 years ago, and asks “Why did people with primitive stone tools leave their homes in the lush temperate bamboo forests, with salmon in the rivers and deer in the forests to paddle into the frozen Arctic during the Ice Age?”

Turk’s was an anthropological quest into Stone Age migration, skeletal remains, archaeological mysteries, and the eternal urge to explore—what he told us was a kind of “wild gene” that has sent humans crashing around the world forever.

Here’s Turk today on his Jomon book: “Since the book was published, anthropological studies have gone back and forth, supporting my claim, refuting it, and now returning to some level of support.  That’s science…  If you read the book to explore the question, ‘How did people cross harsh lands to enter into the unknown, and Why?’… the message remains valid and timeless.”

And today, in Idaho, with those newly dated stone fragments matching others from Japan—land of the Jomon—I wonder whether the archeologists from three continents are reading Jon Turk, who showed how it could have happened.

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It’s the Water!

Photo by Edward Sheriff Curtis of Nez Perce Dugout Canoe

A couple of summers ago Allen Pinkham Jr. was here at the Josephy Center teaching workshops. He did a few days of beading and a few making drums with a handful of people interested in the crafts and the Nez Perce Indians who had developed them. At the end of his stay, Allen told me that “We Nez Perce were canoe people you know. I’d like to come back here and carve a dugout canoe.”

That conversation sent me on a journey that landed enough grant funds to bring Allen back—in fact, he’s due in tonight with his father and with Bob Chenoweth from the Nez Perce National Historical Park in Spalding, Idaho. Bob’s made a study of historic Nez Perce canoes— there are only a handful in existence, and the park has four of them—and will do a program based on his research. Allen Sr. will chip in with stories of canoes and Nez Perce traditions.

Without stealing any of their thunder, I’ll say that that initial conversation with Allen and subsequent talks, reading, and thinking have me looking at regional history in different ways.  I asked Allen Sr. one time if you stopped someone in downtown Lewiston and asked him or her what two words they associated with Nez Perce, what would they say. “The War and horses,” we almost answered my question together.

Water was here before the horse (which the Nez Perce didn’t get until about 1730), and Indians were using canoes on rivers and lakes well after the advent of the horse. Think about it. Lewis and Clark traveled a good share of their miles by water—rafts on the Missouri; and the Nez Perce helped them build canoes that took them to the sea.  In the Journals, they note few horses and many canoes on the Columbia.

David Thompson and the fur traders would pack trade goods on boats and horses, moving from one to the other with the terrain, building new canoes, trading canoes for horses, and on and on.  Locally, it’s obvious that historically, traveling the length of Wallowa Lake would have been a lot easier by water than horseback.

On the other end of the scale, Dr. Loren Davis, an archeologist from Oregon State University, told a recent audience at Wallowology next door that the first immigrants to the Americas probably came by sea, bouncing along the Pacific Shore to the tip of South America. That, and not the land bridge (the times of newer finds are pushing that date back and taking their toll on land bridge theory) is how the Americas were populated as extensively and widely as we now know they were.

Stories go on. This week’s local paper heralds the return of coho salmon to the Lostine River and the Grande Ronde Basin. Similar efforts by Nez Perce Fisheries, and by the Yakima Nation and the Umatilla have reinforced or reintroduced salmon populations across the region. Aaron Penny, a Nez Perce Fisheries worker and tribal member, says that the losses of fish over the last 100 years were like “losing your soul.”

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation Natural Resources Department has a program called “first foods.” The tenant of the program is that if we take care of our foods in the way they are served in the longhouse, we’ll have a healthier environment and healthier bodies. And it all, of course, starts with water. Without clear, healthy water there are no salmon, and then no deer and the other four-leggeds and two leggeds that comprised traditional diet. And without clean and good rain there would be no strong roots and abundant huckleberries to finish the longhouse meal.

The biggest and most important water battle fought by tribes in the past 100 years was probably the fight on Northwest Rivers that led to the Boldt Decision and the determination that half the catch belonged to Indians. For their part, the Indians are restoring habitat and doing all they can with mitigation money to increase the size of that catch.

And simultaneously, from coastal tribes in Washington to these Nez Perce in their traditional Wallowa Homeland, Indians are building canoes again, reclaiming cultural heritage, showing the world that the water has always been and is still primal.

I’m tempted to go on, and tie it all to Standing Rock. But water is water everywhere, and you can do that.