The Burnham Site, near Freedom, Oklahoma, is among a handful of sites that may disclose evidence of a human presence in North America prior to circa 11,000 years ago, which is the widely accepted date for the Clovis culture. Between 1986 and 1992 the Oklahoma Archeological Survey excavated Burnham in a project that included archaeologists, paleontologists, geomorphologists, soils scientists, and other specialists. Parts of two chipped-stone tools, a flaked cobble, and numerous flakes were found in association with the bones of the extinct, long-horned form of bison known as Bison chaneyi in ancient pond deposits dated to around 36,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene era.
Because of the potential importance for dating the age of human activity in the New World, researchers devoted much effort to studying how the site was formed. Close scrutiny of the many geological strata, along with numerous radiocarbon dates, allowed the reconstruction of the site's formational history, including the setting of the bison bones and the artifacts. The conclusion was that both the bones and the artifacts had been moved from their original location and redeposited into earlier (older) sediments. Unfortunately, the initial location was not found (and may no longer exist). Although the association between the bones and the artifacts is likely to be valid, without the primary context it is impossible to conclusively demonstrate. Therefore, the Burnham site remains enigmatic regarding the question of a pre-Clovis human presence.
Although they provided no definitive archaeological answer, the Burnham site investigators made major contributions to knowledge of Oklahoma's prehistoric past. Burnham produced a richer assortment of paleontological specimens than any other site in the region. Of even greater importance is the careful documentation and dating of the specimens. Recovered species included mammoth, Shasta ground sloth, dire wolf, giant tortoise, llama, and even alligator. Other recovered species are still found in the area. Plant remains attest to the presence of pawpaw trees, which in the twentieth century were not found nearer than 150 miles east of the site. Hackberry trees were also present, although the modern ranges of those species do not overlap. Thousands of snail shells were recovered, and, because of snails' ecological sensitivity, their identification aided greatly in reconstructing the environment of northwestern Oklahoma between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. Altogether, the data speak of periods of greater moisture, warmer winters, and fewer summer droughts. The Burnham site may not have conclusively answered the question of whether people inhabited the New World prior to 11,000 years ago, yet it contributed a wealth of information about Oklahoma's Pleistocene past.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Don G. Wyckoff, James L. Theler, and Brian J. Carter, eds., The Burnham Site in Northwest Oklahoma: Glimpses Beyond Clovis? (Norman: Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History and Oklahoma Anthropological Society, 2003).
Kent J. Buehler
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