Archaeologists Find 15,700-Year-Old Stone Projectiles in Idaho

The finds may rewrite how, and when, Ice Age humans in Asia and the Americas interacted.

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Stone projectile points found in Cooper's Ferry's Area B.
Stone projectile points found in Cooper’s Ferry’s Area B.
Photo: Courtesy Loren Davis

Archaeologists on a famous site in Idaho have found stemmed point tools that date to about 15,785 years ago, making them thousands of years older than the site’s previously known tools.

The research pushes back the known ages of some of the oldest tools on the continent, and could shed light on how technology (and perhaps genetic connections) were shared between the Ice Age inhabitants of Asia and North America. The work was published last week in Science Advances.

“From a scientific point of view, these discoveries add very important details about what the archaeological record of the earliest peoples of the Americas looks like,” said Loren Davis, an archaeologist at Oregon State University and the study’s lead author, in a university release. “It’s one thing to say, ‘We think that people were here in the Americas 16,000 years ago; it’s another thing to measure it by finding well-made artifacts they left behind.”

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The Cooper’s Ferry site is traditional Nez Perce land in Idaho, and is known as Nipéhe to the tribe. The site has divulged a trove of worked stone and animal remains since it was first excavated in the mid-20th century.

The projectiles were actually found over the course of several years, from 2012 to 2017. But only now have those remains been dated and the team’s results published.

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The tools are about the same age as stone flakes and bone remains (previously discovered by Davis with a different team) that suggested humans inhabited the site. But the complete projectile points add more detail to that ancient tableau, and drives home the point that early Americans were proficient hunters.

“Smaller projectile points mounted on darts will penetrate deeply and cause tremendous internal damage,” Davis said. “You can hunt any animal we know about with weapons like these.”

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Davis said the points also bear resemblance to projectile points from Hokkaido, Japan, which date to between 16,000 and 20,000 years ago. The connection doesn’t offer answers, but hints at possible cultural exchange between the residents of northeast Asia and some of the early arrivals in North America.

So far, 65,000 items have been found and mapped from the Cooper’s Ferry site. With each dig, we pull back a little bit more of the curtain on early human activity.

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