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Oklahoma Archaeology


By Charles W. Sasser T


he Freeman-Custis expedition sent by President Thomas Jeffer- son to explore the Red River in 1806 was expected to encounter unicorns, giant water serpents, lions, exotic men, and perhaps prehistoric beasts. That these existed at some point in what is


now Oklahoma, with the exception of unicorns, is confi rmed in more than 25,000 archaeological and paleontological sites in the state. In 1940, the remains of a 100 million-year-old carnivorous dinosaur, a


T-Rex relative and the largest known predator from the time, was discovered near Atoka, Okla., in Southeastern Electric Cooperative service territory. In the 1980s, a farmer named Gene Burnham was digging a pond in Woods County, in Alfalfa Electric Cooperative service area, when he found the bones of an ancient bison, horses, and an American lion, along with stone tools made by early humans. “This is the earliest evidence of humans in Oklahoma,” Dr. Robert L.


Brooks, professor of archaeology at University of Oklahoma (OU), explains. “It dates to about 30,000 years and indicates humans have been in Oklahoma much longer than we supposed.”


In the 1930s, the U.S. enacted antiquities laws and designated an archae- ologist in each state to oversee research and add to the public’s knowledge about archaeology. As Oklahoma’s state archaeologist since 1981, Brooks works with the Sam Noble Archaeological Museum at OU and delivers public lectures about the rise of humankind in Oklahoma. Paleontology is about dinosaurs and old bones; archaeology is the study


of what people leave behind. Dinosaur remains are rare in Oklahoma pri- marily since for most of the Jurassic Period an inland sea covered much of


32


The Past is Never Dead


The Sooner State is full of archaeology fi nds like this ax hewed from stone by prehistoric Oklahomans. Photos by Charles Sasser


Oklahoma—except for the Panhandle and the extreme southeastern corner of the state. Humans, however, left a rich heritage in the state that traces its timeline from the Burnham site of 30,000 years ago. Early Oklahomans were primi- tive hunters. Game animals like the woolly mammoth, musk ox, bear, horse, the American lion and two species of bison abounded. The Cooperton site in Kiowa County, in Kiwash Electric Cooperative service territory, from 18,000 years ago, along with the Domebo site in Caddo County, in Caddo Electric Cooperative service area, 11,800 years ago, reveal where hunters ambushed imperial mammoth with spears. A giant bison skull dated at 10,000 years ago with a stone spear point embedded in the bone was recovered on the Arkansas River near Tulsa, Okla. Oklahoma was warmer and drier 11,000 years ago than today as Ice Age glaciers have since retreated. A meteor struck Canada, causing a rapid, colder change in climate that killed off many mammals such as the mammoth. Although bison survived, conditions forced people to make changes in how they lived. They gradually became collectors and rudimentary farmers as well as hunters. Parts of Oklahoma were thriving agricultural and trading centers at least three centuries before Columbus arrived. The Spiro Mounds, in Kiamichi Electric Cooperative territory, remain a spectacular archaeological tribute to these resourceful people.


In 1933, looters dug into one of the mounds and discovered an unbeliev-


able quantity of artifacts that included conch shells from Florida, exotic carvings of elephants, copper trinkets, and other materials that established Spiro as a gateway trading community and political center between the Mississippian cultures to the east and the Great Plains people in the west.


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