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Remains of House in Oregon May Be Most Ancient in U.S.

Archeology: A 9,500-year-old 'summer home' near a lake is helping researchers learn about early residents' lives.

October 10, 1998|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Researchers in Oregon have found the remains of what appears to be the oldest house ever discovered in the United States, a 9,500-year-old lakeside dwelling that is providing new insights into the lives of some of the continent's earliest inhabitants.

The structural remains were unearthed in central Oregon by construction workers enlarging a road into the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, archeologist Tom Connolly of the University of Oregon will report today at the Great Basin Archeology Conference in Eugene.

His team has discovered not only the remains of the house, but a variety of tools, food remnants and other artifacts that paint the most comprehensive picture available of everyday life not long after humans first arrived on this continent.

"This find adds a great deal of detail to our understanding of how these people lived their lives," Connolly said. "Our ideas were previously based on small bits of information gathered here and there--a kind of conjectural view. Now we have lots of solid evidence."

Connolly has tentatively identified what appear to be the remains from several other dwellings nearby, suggesting that the site was a summer encampment on the shores of Paulina Lake in Newberry Crater.

"The site is unique . . . and the oldest in the United States as far as I know," said archeologist Kenneth Ames of Portland State University. "The next oldest one dates from only 7,500 years before the present."

The site is fairly well preserved because it was buried in the massive eruption of Mt. Mazama about 7,500 years ago. That eruption, several times larger than the 1980 explosion at Mt. St. Helens, formed what is now Crater Lake. Although Newberry Crater is about 50 miles away from Mt. Mazama, it was nonetheless buried in at least two feet of volcanic ash, protecting the remains of the dwelling.

The burial also aided dating because anything below the ash has to be at least 7,500 years old, Connolly said.

Newberry Crater is a volcanic caldera, formed from a massive eruption about 200,000 years ago. Researchers have found traces of 25 small eruptions in the caldera over the last 10,000 years, the most recent occurring about 1,300 years ago.

Alerted by construction workers, Connolly discovered a large fire hearth and the remains of structural posts enclosing an oval area about 14 feet across and 18 feet wide. Radiocarbon dating of the posts indicates an age of about 9,490 years.

Charred fragments from the hearth are a few hundred years older, Connolly said, but the residents may have been burning fuel that had been dead for many years.

The dating indicates that the residents belonged to the Windust group of Native Americans, named after earlier discoveries in the Windust caves along the Columbia River. The Windust people, mobile tribes of hunter-gatherers, were in the region as early as 11,000 years ago. They did not settle down into permanent villages until about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, according to Ames, which supports the idea that the newly discovered house was part of a temporary summer settlement.

Other scientists had previously unearthed about 70 pairs of sandals made of sagebrush bark, dating from the same period as the new Paulina Lake discovery, at Fort Rock Cave, about 25 miles away from the Paulina site.

Connolly's group also found chipped-stone and obsidian cutting, grinding and abrading tools, as well as a stone pestle that could have been used for pulping roots, breaking up bones and other purposes. The obsidian was traced to a site more than 60 miles away, indicating that the people "had a pretty substantial range" of movement, he said.

Blood traces on the tools suggest that the dwelling's residents hunted bison, rabbit, bear, sheep and deer or elk--all of which would have been abundant.

Remnants in the hearth indicate that they ate chokeberries, hazelnuts, blackberries and other fruits and nuts. They also processed hardwood bark, bulrushes and other plants to make baskets, clothing, and floor and roof coverings.

They kept warm and cooked with fires from lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine and sagebrush. The region was probably a ponderosa pine forest at the time, Connolly said, but destruction of the forest by Mazama's eruption allowed lodgepole pine to displace it.

Connolly has found another central hearth nearby and traces of other houses, but no other structural remains. "We have one house that we are sure of, and suggestions of others," he said.

And the modern road? That underwent "significant design changes" to protect the site, he said.

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