History of Oregon by Oregon Historical Society
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Subtopic : A Dynamic Landscape and Its First People: The First Arrivals

Themes: People and the Environment, Social Relations

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Malheur Valley
Thurston Photograph
OrHi 85080

The first people entered southeastern Oregon’s dynamic landscape by no later than between about 13,000 and 10,000 years ago. By the time of these earliest arrivals, the region’s glaciers had melted into small remnants, and many of the great Ice Age lakes had begun to shrink into shallow but plant- and animal-rich lakes, marshes, and wetlands. Ancestors of the first Oregonians most likely had arrived in North America via a “land bridge” from northeast Asia, either traveling across the land connection itself and/or using watercraft along its southern shores. This occurred during a time when the world’s immense sheets of ice had locked up so much of the planet’s water that Ice Age sea levels were lowered 300 feet from present sea level.

Known to archaeologists as “Paleo-Indians,” we know of these people’s presence in southeastern Oregon by about 11,000 years ago from places like the shores of long-dry Alkali Lake, where archaeological excavations at the Dietz Site during the 1980s and 1990s yielded numerous fluted “Clovis-style” obsidian projectile points, weapons that almost certainly were used to hunt the great Ice Age mammals. Further north in Lake County, investigations of a shallow cave at Fort Rock produced tantalizing evidence of a human presence 13,000 years before present. When occupied, both of these sites would have been at the edges of large, shallow freshwater lakes whose reed-choked shores also attracted flocks of waterfowl. As drastic climate change and other factors swept the gigantic Ice Age mammals from North America, the people of southeastern Oregon adapted. Fluted points gave way to smaller, stemmed projectile points for men’s hunting of bighorn sheep, elk, deer, and antelope. Lakeshore environments provided tule reeds and other plant materials for women’s cleverly woven baskets, mats, and even clothing; the same Fort Rock Cave is famous for its cache of sagebrush-bark sandals radiocarbon-dated as being 9,000 years old.

Even with the end of the Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, climate change continued. Indeed, the region’s landscape was, and so it remains, particularly sensitive to even minor changes in precipitation and temperature. Beginning about 8,000 years before present, and lasting for approximately 4,000 years, a hotter and drier climatic cycle throughout much of the West caused most of the northern Great Basin’s remnant lakes to disappear entirely. Increased evaporation rates and changing habitats during this “Hypsithermal” period apparently led some Native people to concentrate in the uplands near springs and other dependable water sources. People obeyed the commands of the region’s changing natural world. However, they adapted to such challenges with ingenuity and resilience, from using hunting blinds and cooperative game drives to kill large numbers of animals at a time to weaving watertight basketry in which food could be boiled with heated stones.

© Jeff LaLande, 2005

Themes: People and the Environment,Social Relations

Regions: Southeastern Oregon

Date: 13,000-10,000 BPE

Author: Jeff LaLande

When “Paleo-Indians” first entered southeastern Oregon between 13,000 and 10,000 years ago the region was in the midst of considerable geological change.

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