George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

Researchers search for evidence of earliest inhabitants of Central Great Plains

Thu, 08/28/2014

LAWRENCE — A team led by University of Kansas Distinguished Professor Rolfe Mandel in July excavated a northeast Kansas site in Pottawatomie County seeking to find artifacts tied to the Clovis and Pre-Clovis peoples, the founding populations of the Americas.

The team is awaiting the results of dating of sediment samples tied to recovered artifacts, and if the sediments are confirmed to be more than 13,500 years old it would open the door to a discovery of the earliest evidence of people inhabiting this part of the state and the Central Great Plains.

"If we want to know about the history of the arrival of people in the Great Plains, this is the sort of work that's going to unravel that," said Mandel, who in addition to his appointment with the Department of Anthropology is also a senior scientist with the Kansas Geological Survey. "We all have inherent interest in history, so this tells us something about the early occupants of the Great Plains and this part of the Great Plains. It will tell us a lot about the history of the peopling of the Americas and in particular the peopling of the Great Plains, especially the Central Great Plains, where it's been pretty much a black hole in terms of unraveling that story."

The 20 days of excavating a bank on the north end of Tuttle Creek and the Big Blue River — known as the Coffey Site —this summer was part of KU's ODYSSEY Project, which Mandel directs, and it gives KU undergraduate and graduate students archeological field experience. ODYSSEY team members have made the only other discovery of Clovis period people inhabiting Kansas or Nebraska when they discovered a stratified Clovis-age site at Kanorado, which is near Goodland in northwest Kansas on the Colorado border.

Mandel was hopeful the recent dig at Tuttle Creek would yield evidence that Clovis people inhabited the site in northeast Kansas at least 13,500 years ago, but he said based on the depth of the artifacts in the bank, it's possible their findings could be associated with the earlier Pre-Clovis people.

"There's no question that there's something there. It's a matter of getting a handle on the age of it," Mandel said.

Items recovered in July included portions of two projectile points — that were likely tied to spear points — and a hafted drill. Although the spear points and drill found this summer are considerably younger than Clovis, a spear point and another artifact found at the Coffey site last summer represent the immediate successors of Clovis. Mandel said that below these items are artifacts that may be the material remains of Clovis or Pre-Clovis people. A key test in attempting to date the artifacts is determining when the sediments containing them were last exposed to light before being buried.

Another key in trying to verify the age of artifacts is whether they are found to be resting in horizontal or vertical positions. Mandel said artifacts in vertical positions are less likely to be associated with the age of the sediments containing them because it's possible the items could have fallen down a crack in the sediments, for example.

"If you're going to have an extraordinary hypothesis that this could be tied to Pre-Clovis, you have to have extraordinary evidence, and so it has to be done extremely systematically," Mandel said. "It has to be done in a very meticulous way."

As they analyze the materials, including the tools recovered from the bank to try to tie them to Clovis or Pre-Clovis people, Mandel said the Paleoindian population was known to bring items from long distances, so it may help scholars map population movement in early America and the Central Great Plains.

"We're talking about small family units, hunters and gatherers," he said. "It's a group of five or six, maybe a little bit larger wandering across the landscape. They're following herds of animals. Of course, at that time, the assemblage of animals looked a lot different than what it does today."

In addition to hunting megafauna, that included mammoth, large extinct forms of bison, and American camel, the inhabitants in the area likely also gathered a variety of plant foods.

"They were constantly on the move, taking advantage of resources," Mandel said. "Given that they were small groups, they didn't leave a lot behind. They didn't live in villages. That didn't happen until about 2,000 years ago, in more recent time."

As the analysis of the artifacts from July’s dig continues, Mandel — who has spent a large part of his career looking for clues to verify the earliest inhabitants of the region — waits to find out how significant of a discovery the ODYSSEY Project participants made during their hot, long hours digging and excavating on the river bank in northeast Kansas.

"It's a small record. It's probably dispersed. It's been possibly modified by the geological process, including deep burial, and so it's very elusive," Mandel said. "It's very difficult to find."

See a video of Mandel's research here.

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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

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