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Subtopic : Where Living Waters Flow: Place & People: Native American Culture: The Ancient Ones

Themes: People and the Environment, Arts

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Illustration of Chetkoe Indians, 1855
CN 022258

Then [Coyote] said, “People shall spear salmon, they will go to get food, to one another will they go to get food; one another they will feed, and they shall not kill one another. In that way shall the world be, as long as the world goes on.”

This creation story, recorded by anthropologist Edward Sapir in 1906, suggests how intensely Native peoples linked life to the sun, moon, and wind, with mountain, rock and stream, deer, coyote, and bird. Native peoples lived in southwestern Oregon for thousands of years prior to Euro-American contact. While they did not easily win survival—obtaining food and shelter consumed most of their energy—they insured sustenance from the landscape by controlling natural processes, especially through the use of fire.

Southwestern Oregon Indians shared a similar environment and culture. What little is known of their lifeways and economic systems during the past 10,000 years comes from archaeological investigations, climate and environmental studies, and extrapolations from ethnographic and historical records. All of these sources suffer from a lack of data. Only in the past few decades have archaeologists accumulated sufficient information to begin to assess the cultural changes that have occurred since humans first occupied the region.

Current theory suggests a date for human entry into the Pacific Northwest at the end of the last Ice Age between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago. Scientists have obtained a radiocarbon (C-14) date of 13,200 BP (Before Present) from cultural deposits at Fort Rock Cave in central Oregon. By 11,500 BP, small groups of people spread across the continent pursuing the herds of large game that inhabited North America in the moist, post-glacial environment. Highly nomadic, these big-game hunters, known as Paleo-Indians, used a distinctive style of spear point named for the small town of Clovis, New Mexico, near which they were first discovered. Archaeologists have associated these large, finely made spear points with large mammal species (megafauna) such as mammoth, horse, camel, and giant bison that once roamed the continent. The discovery of isolated Clovis points—although not associated with megafauna—in southwest Oregon near Roseburg, Butte Falls, Hyatt Lake, and the Oregon-California border, confirm the presence of Paleo-Indians in the region during this early period.

When the climate warmed in the post-glacial period, vegetation changed and large animal species became extinct. The nomadic, big-game hunting way of life of the Paleo-Indians gradually shifted to a broad-based hunting and gathering existence that archaeologists term the Archaic period. The Archaic way-of-life, beginning around 10,500 BP, lasted in the Pacific Northwest until contact with Euro-Americans in the nineteenth century. Recent excavations along the southern Oregon coast by Oregon State University archaeologists document settlement in this region as early as 10,430 BP. Native peoples based their economy in this period on a wide variety of plant, animal, and fish resources. They developed new techniques for gathering, processing, and storing foods as well as new weapon technologies. Through the Archaic period, Native settlement patterns, domestic architecture, social structures, and land management practices reflected gradual changes in the natural environment and the pressures of their steadily increasing population.

Our fragmentary knowledge of the Native way-of-life prior to the arrival of Euro-Americans comes from the recollections of a few elderly informants. These memories outline seasonal subsistence patterns, reveal religious and ceremonial practices, and give us snapshots of daily life. Archaeologists can project those same patterns and lifeways back in time to help explain the archaeological record, but must proceed cautiously because the lifeways captured in the ethnographic accounts and historical documents reflect only a moment in time. Constant change dictates that conditions in 1840 were probably quite different than those one thousand, five thousand, or ten thousand years earlier.

© Kay Atwood & Dennis J. Gray, 2003

Themes: People and the Environment,Arts

Regions: Cascades,Southwestern Oregon

Date: 10,000 BPE

Author: Kay Atwood & Dennis J. Gray

Current theory suggests a date for human entry into the Pacific Northwest at the end of the last Ice Age between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago. Recent excavations along the southern Oregon coast by Oregon State University archaeologists document settlement in this region as early as 10,430 BP.

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