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home : education : schools May 26, 2018

5/15/2018 1:03:00 PM
Unlocking the secrets of prehistoric poop
Dr. Jenkins on site at the Paisley Caves. photo courtesy Odellcross/
+ click to enlarge
Dr. Jenkins on site at the Paisley Caves.

photo courtesy Odellcross/

Eighty years ago, excavations at the Paisley Caves in south-central Oregon revealed exciting evidence suggesting that people may have lived there as early as the late Pleistocene epoch, some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. But it was not until recent developments in ancient DNA testing that the evidence has become fully accepted.

Dr. Dennis Jenkins has been instrumental in verifying and expanding the Paisley Caves research first conducted by Dr. Luther Cressman in the late 1930s. Dating of camel and horse bones, artifacts, twigs, and dried human feces containing Native American DNA between 12,900 and 14,500 years ago indicates that people lived in the caves and probably hunted camels, horses, and other animals at the end of the Pleistocene.

Dr. Jenkins, a senior research archaeologist at the University of Oregon, will speak at The Belfry as part of the Frontiers in Science lecture series sponsored by the Sisters Science Club and supported by the UO's Museum of Natural and Cultural History. The lecture, "Archaeology and Science at the Paisley Caves," begins at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 22.

Employing a colorful PowerPoint presentation, Dr. Jenkins will explain the scientific processes and results of archaeological and paleogenetic investigations at the Paisley Caves that illuminate the interaction of humans with Pleistocene plants and animals in Oregon's high desert country centuries ago.

Methods of radiocarbon dating unknown 80 years ago now allow archaeologists to link items such sage cordage and grass threads, obsidian and bone tool fragments, wooden pegs, cut animal bones, and evidence of fire hearths to fairly precise moments in time.

Researchers also have identified and collected dozens of desiccated human feces - called coprolites or, more informally, poop - which turned out to contain human mitochondrial DNA identical to that of the peoples already known to have first emigrated from Asia to the Americas.

Known in some circles as "Dr. Poop," Dr. Jenkins spends every spare moment with his team of UO undergrads digging up artifacts at the Paisley Caves. The 14,000-year-old poop is the oldest evidence of humans in North America.

A native Oregonian, Dr. Jenkins is an internationally respected expert in his field. He has taught and directed the UO's annual Northern Great Basin archaeological field school in Central Oregon since 1989. His research focuses on the first colonization of the Americas, obsidian sourcing and hydration, prehistoric shell bead trade, and settlement-subsistence patterns of the Northern Great Basin. In addition to publications in such prestigious journals as Science and Nature, he has appeared in numerous television documentaries aired on the History Channel, National Geographic, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Canadian Broadcasting, the Archaeology Channel, Danish and Japanese TV.

Social hour for this final lecture of the 2017-18 season begins at 6 p.m. with light fare, beer, and wine available. The lecture begins at 7 p.m. Admission is $5; Science Club annual donors, teachers and students are admitted free. The Belfry is located at 302 E. Main Ave.

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