Pre-Clovis at Powars II
Field Notes No. 4
I last published one of these (Field Notes No. 3) hopeful that a dead mammoth discovered in southeast Wyoming would yield artifacts suggesting it died at the hands of humans over 13,000 years ago. Alas, Gerardo (as we named it) remains a dead mammoth alone, albeit a really complete one. We left the site missing only a single tusk, the mandible, and maybe a few ribs and small foot bones. And of course any definitive sign of humans. But it’s among the most complete mammoths ever discovered in Wyoming, and we’re grateful for that. Gerardo (or GerardA, since we determined it’s a female) will provide a clear indication of what mammoths looked like, ate, and coexisted with at the end of the Pleistocene as people were entering Wyoming, and that’s something that doesn’t come along every day.
Gerardo is slightly older than most sites of the Clovis cultural complex, at 13,150 years, so perhaps the cohort of Clovis-first academics who excavated the animal should’ve known that people weren’t around to kill it. Gerardo would have been the oldest site in Wyoming and one of the oldest in the entire western hemisphere.
Others in Wyoming purportedly had better luck last week. As we toiled over Gerardo’s bones, news swept through Wyoming’s popular media outlets about a newly discovered pre-Clovis occupation at the nearby Powars II Paleoindian hematite quarry, only 1 county north from our mammoth excavation. I published a paper about Powars II last year before moving onto other endeavors, and the news was news to me. I’ve gotten alot of inquiries about my thoughts on the matter, so I’ll summarize them in the most judicious way possible here.
Powars II is the oldest hematite (red ocher) quarry in the Americas. It was used for around 1,000 years between the tail end of the Clovis culture (ca. 12,700 BP) through the Folsom and Plainview cultures and into the Hell Gap culture (ca. 11,700 BP). For those that don’t think about Plains Paleoindians all day, it was used by some of the first people to live in Wyoming, having been established by perhaps the grandkids or great-grandkids of the first (known) humans to exist in the state, if not the first humans themselves.
Those people mined an exposed seam of specular hematite with bones and antlers, using the mineral to paint themselves, their clothes, their dead, their weaponry, the floors of their houses, and apparently whatever else existed in their Paleoindian world. Red ocher was used for alot of things, and nailing down a specific function seems pointless given the diverse range of archaeological contexts in which it’s found.
They also seemed to have hung out at the site alot, flintknapping and, importantly, discarding a phenomenal number of old spear points. It’s this latter aspect of the site that first drew the attention of archaeologists and it remains a notable aspect of the site assemblage. Last I counted there were somewhere around 180 Paleoindian spear points from the site. As far as I know, it’s the densest accumulation of Pleistocene weaponry ever discovered.
I had the great privilege of working at Powars II for six years between 2017 and 2022, organizing and supervising excavations, orchestrating site stabilization, compiling a National Register of Historic Places nomination, and eventually publishing the first paper on the intact portion of the site. I stopped working at the site in 2022 because my work there was done and for some other reasons I won’t (yet) go into. So it was a surprise to me when Wyoming’s Cowboy State Daily published an article about a newly discovered pre-Clovis occupation there 2 weeks ago.
Wyoming’s latest pre-Clovis Claim
I woke up on June 17th to an article claiming that artifacts dating to 14,000 years old had been discovered at Powars II. I was soon inundated with texts, emails, and calls asking what I knew about it. Which was nothing more than anybody else.
Typical of popular media, Renee Jean’s article is light on specifics, but here’s what one can parse from it. The caption to one of the article’s images states that 2 artifacts had been found in association with sediments dated to over 14,000 years old. Those artifacts were found in the valley floor below the Powars II site. An image of the bottom of a test unit where the artifacts were discovered suggests the artifacts were situated within the fine-grained Pleistocene loess typical of the Hartville Uplift region where the site is located, or perhaps one of the rocky layers visible in the image. And another photo depicts 3 Brazilian researchers brought into to study the site, though they are not named.
Shortly thereafter, I received a call from Valeria Fugate of Cheyenne’s Channel 5 CBS News asking about the discovery. I couldn’t tell her much but encouraged her to reach out to the site steward for details and return to me with any questions. She interviewed me via Zoom from my truck cab at the mammoth site a week later, footage featured on the evening news June 27th. She reported that they had obtained two dates from the level, a radiocarbon date and an OSL date, but the story didn’t reveal any further details. I got another flood of inquiries after that and now here we are. Another pre-Clovis rumor turned into fact by the popular media that may or may not ever be published, like so many of these claims before. If it’s not apparent, I’m skeptical.
The Search so Far
To understand my views on a possible Powars II pre-Clovis occupation, it’s worth providing some historical context. First, this is not the first time someone has made claims of pre-Clovis archaeology in Wyoming. One of the first archaeologists to work in the state in the 1930s, E.B. Renaud, actually tried to make the case for an American Paleolithic based on wind-weathered chert nodules he found on ancient lag surfaces in Wyoming’s Red Desert that he thought resembled tools of France’s Mousterian lithic tradition. This claim obviously never panned out, though there remain some who will claim that archaeologists are ignoring an astoundingly old record lying right under our noses in the southwest corner of the state.
More recently, George Frison thought he had a pre-Clovis occupation at Little Canyon Creek Cave in the Bighorn Mountains of northern Wyoming. Excavations there produced stone tools seemingly in association with an extinct musk ox vertebra. Frison even presented his findings at the Society for American Archaeology meeting in 1979. Unfortunately, further work revealed an erosional contact that caused Late Holocene artifacts to become spatially associated with more ancient faunal remains. Thus, the find was abandoned without ever being published as a pre-Clovis occupation.
So up until this point we’ve failed to discover a pre-Clovis occupation in Wyoming, but how hard have we looked? I would say pretty damn hard. Wyoming archaeologists have since the late 1950s conducted large-scale, rigorous excavations at some of the oldest sites in the western hemisphere. These are the major, stratified sites that have largely defined North American Paleoindian archaeology, like Hell Gap, Agate Basin, Mummy Cave, La Prele, etc. At each, excavations have extended deeply past the oldest occupations to determine how old the oldest artifacts in the sites are. And at each, that age is somewhere shy of 13,000 years.
In addition to these intensive single site investigations, Wyoming is one of the most thoroughly surveyed regions globally, with around half of the entire state having been surveyed intensively for archaeological sites. This is all courtesy of Wyoming’s energy sector, which has funded tens of millions of dollars worth of archaeological research in the state. This research is completely at the mercy of wherever energy development takes place, so it is theoretically unbiased in where it occurs. For many projects, every hearth or charcoal stain that pops up in a pipeline trench or wind turbine pad gets radiocarbon dated to mitigate the damage done to it by construction, and these features span virtually the entire human record in Wyoming. Conspicuously absent from those dates is any evidence prior to 13,000 years old, presumably because that’s around when humans first arrived to Wyoming.
Pre-Clovis in the Hartville Uplift
Let’s get closer to Powars II. In my interview with Channel 5 News, I said that the Hartville Uplift, where Powars II is located, is where a Wyoming pre-Clovis site should be. They obviously aired that statement, it being one of the more supportive statements I made about their story. But I stand by it. The Hartville Uplift seems to have been a magnet for Paleoindians, who used the region to quarry toolstone and hematite, establish long-used campsites, hunt game, and live their lives in the rugged, wooded canyons of the southeast Wyoming feature. If Wyoming has a pre-Clovis site, then yes, it should be in the Hartville Uplift.
But no pre-Clovis occupation has ever been found in the Hartville Uplift, despite the region being one of the most extensively researched in the northern Plains. The Hartville Uplift is home to the Camp Guernsey Joint Training Center, a National Guard facility used primarily to teach young soldiers how to shoot big guns. The military being a Federal enterprise, the Camp is required to do extensive amounts of archaeology prior to blowing things up, and they fund it generously. Accordingly, the Hartville Uplift is densely surveyed and extensively tested for buried archaeological sites. This is in addition to big excavation projects in the Uplift at Hell Gap, Betty Greene, Powars II, Patton Creek, Spanish Diggings, and other sites well known from the published literature, none of which contain evidence for pre-Clovis occupations.
These combined investigations have led archaeologists to a fairly robust understanding of where to find old dirt in the Hartville Uplift with the potential to contain Paleoindian archaeology. Unlike many places, the Hartville Uplift appears to have no shortage of old dirt. It is draped with a thick geologic layer elsewhere called Peoria loess, a homogenous pile of wind-blown dust deposited during the arid, windy years of the last ice age between 27,000 and 13,000 years ago. Had people been living in the Hartville Uplift at this time, they would have left traces buried in the Peoria loess, but none have ever been found. Rather, one could dig for years in the soft, fine-grained pile of dust and never find a single object larger than a grain of sand.
Moreover, these investigations have documented really good ways for artifacts to be displaced into older sediments, and a particular story comes to mind. Several years ago, a University of Wyoming crew were testing a site in the Hartville Uplift situated at the top of a deep loess deposit. They excavated through a dense, but thin layer of artifacts near the surface and then used a bucket auger to probe deeper in search of older artifacts. Two meters deep the crew accomplished the legendary when they pulled a Folsom spear point, one of the rarest artifacts in North America, from a 4-inch bucket auger, perhaps a first in American archaeology. This was either extremely lucky or they had stumbled upon a Folsom site buried 2 meters deep in loess.
Excitedly, the crew placed an excavation over the find. They excavated for days to reach 2 meters only to find….nothing. It turns out they were just lucky. The Folsom point wasn’t from a buried occupation, but had been carried 2 meters deep in a rodent burrow from its original context at the surface of the Peoria loess, associated with 12,000 years of unburied occupational debris. Subsequent dating showed that the Folsom point had been transported into sediments around 17,000 years old, or 5,000 years older than the known age of the Folsom culture.
Rodents and other burrowing animals are notorious for displacing artifacts into deeper (and older) sediments, and their influence is sometimes barely detectable while excavating in the field. This is especially true of homogenous sediments in which burrows are difficult to visually discern, like loess. The same is true of the La Prele Clovis site, where excavations probing deep below the occupation level have picked up artifacts in sediments around 15,000 years old. Such artifacts are unambiguously NOT evidence for a pre-Clovis occupation. They are evidence for burrowing animals.
So what about Powars II?
To recap, the 13 radiocarbon dates from Powars II are the ages expected of an early Paleoindian site in Wyoming, between ca. 12,700 and 11,700 years. Archaeologists have searched extensively for an earlier pre-Clovis occupation in Wyoming but have never found any. This is especially true of the Hartville Uplift where Powars II is located, which can safely be said to be one of the most extensively surveyed and tested regions in the entire country. The Hartville Uplift contains deep loess deposits that date to pre-Clovis times but are completely devoid of archaeology, save for those few artifacts that burrowing animals displace. Which brings me back to the pre-Clovis reports frm Powars II.
Though currently unreported by the current investigators, I’ve seen deep excavations in the Sunrise, WY valley floor where Powars II is located, and they are full of the same deep, homogenous loess deposits as other valleys in the Hartville Uplift. At Sunrise, that loess is capped with a couple meters of industrial debris from a century’s-worth of iron mining, its upper surface having been truncated by historic development. Thus, there could have been an occupation at the valley’s surface from which artifacts were displaced by burrowing animals into 14,000 years old sediments, but that occupation may have been destroyed in the historic era, leaving only the dregs of its presence. Given the reports of only TWO artifacts, I think this scenario is certainly worth considering.
Another option worth considering is the presence of an angular cobble layer visible in one of the images published by Cowboy State Daily (see image captioned “A view into the deep test unit…”). I have only seen this layer from standing over the tops of test units and in images, but it always looked to me like a mass wasting event from the valley margins that occurred during loess deposition. I recall small fragments of heavily weathered bone being found in the cobble layer as far back as 2017, but at that time no artifacts were associated with it. We don’t know where the “items and other artifacts” reported from the site were situated within site sediments, but they were possibly obtained from this cobble layer. If that’s the case, I would be less concerned about burrowing animal displacement than natural bone and chert being entrained by a debris flow. Mass wasting events can fracture chert in ways that appear human-modified. If there’s only 2 artifacts in the midst of a large cobble bed, then natural flaking should at least be considered an option.
Ultimately, I don’t know any solid details about this pre-Clovis report and nobody outside of the site investigators does either. I would find it extremely exciting if there was a legitimate pre-Clovis occupation buried deeply in the Sunrise Valley and I wish the investigators the best in confirming their find. But given the extensive history of research trying to establish that type of site in the Hartville Uplift, the sparse details, and the known ways in which young artifacts can be displaced into old dirt in the Hartville Uplift, some skepticism is warranted until a solid argument for the find’s authenticity is compiled, reviewed, and published.