the mysteries of man
The Big Eddy site offers archaeologists a glimpse
at 10,000 years of prehistoric man
by Jeff Joiner
Shirley Townsend of Springfield forces soil through a fine screen
with blasts of water to reveal tiny artifacts, the evidence of 10,000
years of mans presence in the Sac River valley in southwest
Missouri. Archaeologists may have found clues here that challenge
theories of mans origins in North America.
You might call Shirley Townsend
an archaeology groupie. Shes volunteered at several digs around
Missouri and now finds herself splattered with mud working in the summer
heat along the Sac River near Stockton. Townsend managed to sign on this
summer with what could be one of the most significant archaeological digs
in North America the Big Eddy site.
"There have been people living
here for 10,000 years. Thats fascinating!" she says.
The site was discovered in
1983 when a group of archaeologists surveying the Sac River valley spotted
Indian artifacts washing out of a steep embankment undercut by the river.
In 1997 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the Sac River,
hired archaeologists from Southwest Missouri State University to excavate
the site. The scientists were aware of the areas popularity with
local arrowhead collectors and the findings of the 1983 survey, but they
never dreamed of what they would find when they began digging.
In scientific terms, the universitys
team of archaeologists unearthed good stratigraphy, or layers of sediment,
which offers a glimpse at more than 10,000 years of nearly constant occupation
by American Indians. And thats rare.
"This is like a layer cake.
You cut it and you see the layers," says Jamie Trussell, with the Center
for Archaeological Research at SMSBecause the Big Eddy site sits along
the Sac River, the trash of 10,000 years of people living there was continually
covered by sediment as the river gently flooded and receded. The floods
encased artifacts, including thousands of projectile points, in layer
upon layer of soil. The farther down you dig, the older the period in
courtesy the Center for Archaeological Research
aerial view shows the Big Eddy site situated in an elbow of the
Sac River in Cedar County. The river washes away nearly 4 feet of
the site each year and archaeologists from Southwest Missouri State
University are working quickly to save as many artifacts as possible
before the site is obliterated.
"You can dig down a thousand
years and youve got Scallron points and you dig down 3,000 years
and you find Williams points all the way down to 10,000 years ago,
Clovis Era, the earliest era we have in Missouri and, arguably, anywhere,"
That alone would be exciting
to come across, says Jack Ray, an archaeologist and the manager of this
summers dig. But the truly exciting, and controversial, find came
below the Clovis Era. And that suggestion sparks a hot debate among those
familiar with the prehistory of North American man. The archaeology and
anthropology community is sharply divided between those who believe the
Clovis Era is truly the earliest period that man appeared in North and
South America and those who believe man arrived much earlier.
"We came back in 99 to
dig below the Clovis level and came up with tantalizing clues that, yes,
we might indeed have some evidence that Indians were here earlier," says
Ray. "We had radiocarbon dates associated with levels of about 14 feet
below the surface that dated 12,200 to 12,600 years old. Thats about
1,000 years earlier than Clovis."
To put that into perspective,
only a few years ago it was pretty much accepted there was no one in North
America before about 11,400 years ago. Then archaeologists began finding
evidence of man in South America much earlier than that even as
early as 33,000 years ago at one controversial site in Chile. Scientists
generally accept the theory that man came to North America from Asia by
boat and by a land bridge connecting present day Russia with Alaska, eventually
migrating south through all the Americas.
courtesy the Center for Archaeological Research
controversial anvilstone was photographed where it was unearthed.
The placement of the broken stone and its depth in the ground gave
clues about its use as a tool and how long ago it was used.
"Reading through South American
literature made us think that there had to be people here in North America
probably earlier than in South America," says Neal Lopinot, director of
the Center for Archaeological Research at SMSU. "Most people thought these
Clovis points were the earliest and they would stop excavating. We decided
to dig a little deeper."
Now the Big Eddy site is attracting attention and the SMSU team is under
pressure from not only the world scientific community to prove their theory,
theyre also racing against the forces of nature to find as much
material as possible before the Sac River destroys the site.
The Big Eddy dig sits on the
outside of a meander in the Sac River which washes away, on average, 4
feet of the site each year.
"Eventually the site will be
gone," Ray says. "The emergency is to get in here and find out what these
people were all about and how they lived before all the evidence is lost."
The Center for Archaeological
Research has 10 staff members working the site, but a large number of
volunteers are needed also. As the archaeologists slowly and meticulously
remove soil in pits, looking for any artifacts, volunteers haul buckets
of dirt away. The dirt is forced through fine screens in hopes of finding
even the tiniest pieces of evidence. Its dirty work and volunteer
Shirley Townsend loves it.
"My husband cant imagine
doing something this slow standing at a screen all day long and
pushing dirt through it, but thats my specialty. Im a slow,
methodical person so this fits my personality."
field worker looks up from taking notes at the Big Eddy site.
Because the soil in Missouri
is so acidic, virtually all bone, both human and animal, are destroyed
except for tiny pieces of charred bone from fire pits. Instead the team
is finding an abundance of stone tools including spear points, scrapers
and knives, and evidence of food like hickory nut shells and the burned
bones of turtles.
The controversial evidence
of pre-Clovis Indians found in 1999 is a large broken stone believed to
be an anvilstone, or a rock Indians used to break things on.
"Now its controversial
whether thats actually a man-made object," says Ray, "but we think
the context suggests to us that it could not have been broken and placed
there by natural conditions like the river."
"There were percussion scars
on the stone which occur when you strike something against something else.
That doesnt occur in nature," Trussell explains. "Something was
banging on this rock. And it was the only boulder of its size in this
area. Were very certain that someone brought it here and began breaking,
maybe, mastodon bones on it."
The Center for Archaeological
Study has received funding for three years from the Corps of Engineers
to continue studying the site. Ray says his team will dig this summer
and next and then spend a year analyzing their findings.
Funding has also come from
National Geographic Magazine and the A.P. Green Foundation.
"You really get put under a
microscope when you try to find something early like this," says Lopinot.
"There have been plenty of hoaxes in the past and archaeologists tend
to be skeptical about things. And if you want to be scientifically sound
youd better make sure something is what you really think it is."
Lopinot stresses the research
at Big Eddy is important not only in the debate over when man arrived
in North America, its just as important because its uncovering
the way people lived here for more than 10,000 years.
"Its not just the archaeology
that were interested in," says Lopinot. "Were more interested
in the kinds of plants they ate, the animals they hunted, the basic lifeways
of these people. We can look at change over a long period of time in one
For more information or
to volunteer to work at the Big Eddy site write to the Center for Archaeological
Research, Southwestern Missouri State University, 901 S. National, Springfield,
MO 65804-0089, call them at (417) 836-5363 or visit the centers
Web site at www.smsu.edu/contrib/car.