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Recovered feces points to early North American human activity

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  • Recovered feces points to early North American human activity

    Recovered feces points to early North American human activity
    Margaret Munro , Canwest News Service
    Published: Thursday, April 03, 2008

    Fourteen-thousand-year-old feces from caves in Oregon is being held up as the oldest evidence of human's presence in North America.

    An international team says DNA recovered from an ancient latrine pushes back the peopling of America by more than 1,000 years. It also bolsters the theory that the first humans to reach North America travelled down the B.C. coast while glaciers blanketed the rest of Canada.

    The team of European and U.S. archeologists reported online in the journal Science Thursday that is has established "humans were present" at the caves in south-central Oregon 14,300 years ago.
    Ancient feces from a cave in Oregon have yielded DNA that proves humans were in North America 14,000 years ago, at least 1,000 years before the Clovis culture, researchers said on April 3, 2008.
    Ancient feces from a cave in Oregon have yielded DNA that proves humans were in North America 14,000 years ago, at least 1,000 years before the Clovis culture, researchers said on April 3, 2008.
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    Fragments of human DNA recovered from the feces carry the genetic signature of Native American subgroups that tie back to Siberia and Asia, says the team led by Eske Willerslev, an expert on ancient DNA at Denmark's University of Copenhagen.

    Archeologists have speculated for years that people arrived in North America long before the so-called Clovis people, who left behind arrowheads and blades dating back 13,000 years. But evidence of the early human presence has been elusive. The Oregon feces is being widely described as by far the strongest yet.

    "I think this probably nails it down," says Jonathan Driver, archeologist and dean of graduate studies at Simon Fraser University. He says the ancient human DNA is the next best thing to finding actual human bones.

    The DNA in the feces, combined with other telltale signs of pre-Clovis humans, suggests hunters and gatherers were south of ice sheets "maybe as early as 16,000 years ago," says Driver.

    But not everyone is convinced the claims about the age of Oregon feces will hold up.

    Archeologist Michael Wilson, at Douglas College in New Westminster, B.C., has nagging concerns that fecal samples may have been contaminated. "The work is extremely encouraging, but I'm left with the feeling that there could be pathways to contaminations that we don't yet understand," says Wilson, who has been hunting for evidence of early human activity for decades.

    The 14 ancient coprolites were uncovered in the Paisley Caves in 2002 and 2003 by Dennis Jenkins and his team at the University of Oregon. The dry sheltered caves have also yielded a trove of other artifacts - baskets, rope, wooden pegs, manufactured threads, animal bones.

    Based on the size, shape and colour, Jenkins concluded humans had left the feces. He joined forces with Willerslev's team in Denmark, which extracted the human mitochondrial DNA from six of the coprolites. Three of the six also contain DNA believed to have come from red fox, coyote or wolf - the researchers speculate that the early people either ate the animals or animals urinated on the human feces.

    Extensive testing was done to rule out contamination of the ancient feces by the people at the Oregon dig, and the researchers in the Copenhagen DNA lab. Two other labs in Europe verified their findings.

    Some critics suggest animals may have actually produced the feces, and the human DNA may have come from people later urinating in the caves.

    But Jenkins and his colleagues rule that out, saying the feces contain more human protein than expected from urine. The researchers also say they found human hair in the feces.

    "Any way you cut the poop, people and dogs would have to be at the site within days of each other 14,000 years ago," Jenkins says in a report in Science.

    The Oregon discovery, if it stands up, would kill the theory that the first people on the continent followed mammoths and other big game animals down an ice-free corridor as the glaciers melted away and then fanned out across North and South America over 200 to 300 years, leaving behind distinct Clovis arrowheads and blades. Many archeologists say the more plausible explanation is that Clovis technology was devised after humans were already well established in America - an idea supported by accumulating evidence from the Pacific Northwest, including a recent find by Wilson and his colleagues of bison bone on an island off Washington coast that appears to have been butchered by humans more than 13,000 years ago.

    Driver expects the Oregon find will spur on the search for more evidence. "If we devoted a little more time to the search on Vancouver Island, it is certainly possible we'd find evidence for humans at a very early age," says Driver.

    © Canwest News Service 2008

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