Evidence of Humans in Oregon 18,000 years ago

An archeological site at Rimrock Draw Rockshelter outside of Riley, Ore. The University of Oregon archeological field school discovered evidence suggesting animal and human habitation dating back more than 18,000 years. Courtesy of Becky Raines / University of Oregon

Archaeologists have new evidence suggesting that humans occupied Oregon more than 18,000 years ago. This makes it one of the oldest known sites of human occupation in North America.

A 2023 radiocarbon dating analysis was made based on findings at the Rimrock Draw Rockshelter near Burns, Oregon. The University of Oregon Archaeological Field School has been excavating at the site, which features a shallow overhang in an otherwise open environment. The field school has been working in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management since 2011. The team found telling objects — camel tooth enamel fragments and a human-made tool — deep in the rock shelter, buried underneath the ash of a Mt. St. Helens eruption from over 15,000 years ago.

“This early date aligns well with the oral histories of the tribal nations in the region, many of whom have stories about witnessing geological events like the Missoula floods, a series of events that changed everything for the tribes between 18,000 and 15,000 years ago,” said David Lewis, who received his doctorate in anthropology from the UO and is currently a professor of anthropology at Oregon State University. “As well, tribes have oral histories of encountering giant animals, monsters on the land, and Rimrock Draw rock shelter’s evidence suggest that we did interact with the megafauna, and they may have become characters in our histories of the time before memory.”


Photo credit: Becky Raines
Oregon Public Broadcasting