According to a study published today, projectile points found along the banks of a river in southwestern Idaho could be the oldest evidence of tool technology in the Americas.

The points are believed to have been deposited into shallow pits by an ancient group of hunter-gatherers. They argue that the blueprints for making the objects could have come from East Asia.

Heather Smith, an archaeologist at Texas State University who wasn't involved in the study, said that a lot more work needs to be done to prove that point. She thinks it looks like a really interesting agenda to pursue.

The site where the points were found is on the banks of the Salmon River. The people who have inhabited the region for thousands of years refer to it as a village called "Nipperhe". It was called Cooper's Ferry in English.

In the 16 thousand years ago, the river sat in an ice-free corridor inside a glacier amphitheater. Massive ice sheets would have prevented an overland route into the North American continent from the Bering Strait. Some researchers think that the earliest migrants from Siberia could have sailed down the Pacific coast.

The first major left-hand turn south of the ice is the Columbia River, which leads to Cooper's Ferry.

He says that Cooper's Ferry was left relatively unscathed over the course of the next hundreds of years by devastating floods and avalanches. People early on thought this was a great place to live, and they kept coming back over and over again.

The cultural resources program director for the tribe says that the site is related to the history of the tribe. The village was founded by a young couple after their previous home was destroyed in a flood.

As a graduate student, Davis began working at the site. He and his colleagues published a paper in Science in which radiocarbon dates were obtained from bits of bone and charcoal excavated with the help of the Nez Perce Tribe. One of the earliest known human-occupied sites on the planet is the village. The dates were based on a combination of younger and older radiocarbon dates.

Overview of the Cooper’s Ferry site in the lower Salmon River canyon of western Idaho, USA.
Cooper’s Ferry sits on the banks of the Salmon River.Loren Davis

For the new work, out today in Science Advances, Davis's team turned to a site that had first been excavated in the 1960s, just 25 meters upriver. They found three pits that had been carved from the ground. Davis doesn't think they're human, but beyond that, he can't be sure, as well as 13 carefully worked stone projectile ends known as stems, after the jutting stems used to haft them onto the tips of spears.

Several of the animal bones were dated by the University of Oxford to between 16,000 and 15,600 years ago.

Smith has confidence in the new study's dates, as they bring needed rigor. Ben Potter, an Archeologist at the University of Alaska, is not convinced that the artifacts from the pits are linked to any animal bones. Their exact age is not clear in my opinion.

Although no genetic evidence links the ancient toolmakers to the modern Nez Perce people, the tribe is most definitely their descendants, according to the tribe's leader. He says these are our ancestors. They aren't just names of Paleoindian people, and it's not a website. The people who are alive today are our ancestors.

The points made from rocks are different from the ones called Clovis points. About 13,000 years ago, Clovis points came to dominate the continent's toolmaking landscape.

These points were thought to be the first settlers of the continental US. The discovery of several sites with human artifacts that predated Clovis points dashed that notion, but left open the question of which tool making technology did accompany these earliest migrants.

There is a good case to be made that the authors brought along stems. They say the points at Cooper's Ferry are very similar to projectile points made 20,000 years ago.

Davis believes that the technological tradition of these people may have been passed on to other Asian groups that eventually migrated into the Americas. Travelers didn't invent this stuff when they traveled to the Americas. They had a lot of technological ideas when they were in northeast Asia.

Matthew Des Lauriers is an Archeologist at California State University, San Bernardino. He agrees that the stems from Cooper's Ferry and Hokkaido appear to have the same design principles. His work on Cedros Island off the coast of Baja California shows that shell fishhooks from 23,000 years ago are very similar to those from 11,500 years ago.

David Meltzer is an archaeology professor at Southern Methodist University. He says the similarities between the two regions appear generic and could just as easily be a result of convergence. Finding more evidence at sites in between Japan and the U.S. Pacific Northwest would help make the authors' case, he adds, but "detecting actual links between populations so far away in space and time can only be done reliably with ancientgenomics."

A more detailed explanation of the similarities in flaking technique used to produce both regions' stems points would increase Tom Dillehay's confidence in the East Asian connection. The study of the Idaho points is thorough according to him. He wants to know why the ancient people threw perfectly good projectile points into pits. It is very intriguing.