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Rural Missouri Magazine
Unearthing the mysteries of man
The Big Eddy site offers archaeologists a glimpse
at 10,000 years of prehistoric man

by Jeff Joiner

Volunteer 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 man’s presence in the Sac River valley in southwest Missouri. Archaeologists may have found clues here that challenge theories of man’s origins in North America.

You might call Shirley Townsend an archaeology groupie. She’s 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. That’s 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 area’s 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 university’s 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 that’s 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 time.

Aerial View

Photo courtesy the Center for Archaeological Research

An 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 you’ve 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," says Trussell.

That alone would be exciting to come across, says Jack Ray, an archaeologist and the manager of this summer’s 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. That’s 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.

Anvilstone

Photo courtesy the Center for Archaeological Research

The 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, they’re 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. It’s dirty work and volunteer Shirley Townsend loves it.

"My husband can’t imagine doing something this slow — standing at a screen all day long and pushing dirt through it, but that’s my specialty. I’m a slow, methodical person so this fits my personality."

A 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 it’s controversial whether that’s 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 doesn’t occur in nature," Trussell explains. "Something was banging on this rock. And it was the only boulder of its size in this area. We’re 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 you’d 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, it’s just as important because it’s uncovering the way people lived here for more than 10,000 years.

"It’s not just the archaeology that we’re interested in," says Lopinot. "We’re 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 place."

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 center’s Web site at www.smsu.edu/contrib/car.

 

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