Fossil intrigue

By Dick Mason, The Observer February 27, 2013 10:48 am

Eastern Oregon University geology professor Jay VanTassell removes a mammoth tusk amongst other fossilized remains in their display case in Badgley Hall. The tusk was unearthed in 2010 during a local farmerís bulldozing activities in his field near La Grande. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer
Eastern Oregon University geology professor Jay VanTassell removes a mammoth tusk amongst other fossilized remains in their display case in Badgley Hall. The tusk was unearthed in 2010 during a local farmerís bulldozing activities in his field near La Grande. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer

by DICK MASON / The Observer 

Remains found in Union County near Airport Lane could provide evidence man occupied area 15,000 years ago 

Eastern Oregon University geology professor Jay Van Tassell speaks of his hypothesis with great caution.

It is caution which does not obscure the professor’s underlying excitement for his hypothesis. A hypothesis is an educated guess, and if Van Tassell’s is correct, the   Grande Ronde Valley may someday be the talk of the anthropologic world. 

Van Tassell believes four fossils found near Airport Lane not far from the Union County Airport in 2010 could be evidence which some day may help prove that man inhabited the Grande Ronde Valley more than 15,000 years ago. 

Such a finding would be enormously significant.

“It could make the Grande Ronde Valley the place where there is the oldest evidence of human habitation in the western United States,” Van Tassell said.

Presently the oldest confirmed evidence of human habitation in the western United States is from the Paisley Caves in Lake County. Radiocarbon dating of human remains there indicates that man lived in the area 14,700 years ago. Radiocarbon dating of some of the Airport Lane fossils earlier revealed they are 15,260 years old. 

This means that if direct evidence of human habitation at the Airport Lane site is found, the area would  become the place with the earliest proof of human habitation in the western United States.

Van Tassell stresses that no direct evidence of human habitation has yet been discovered in the Airport Lane area. The professor, however, believes that the fossils could be indirect proof of the existence of man in the Grande Ronde Valley 15,260 years ago.

Van Tassell said some of  the fossils found — the tusk and leg fragments of a Colombian mammoth and leg bones and vertebrae of a giant bison, are the type which humans left at butchering sites thousands of years ago. 

Jay VanTassell gives Daniel Corsini, left, and Max Andrew an up-close view of a reproduction of a pre-historic saber tooth tiger skull following his Grande Ronde Valley fossils presentation at the Ale House in La Grande earlier this month. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer
Jay VanTassell gives Daniel Corsini, left, and Max Andrew an up-close view of a reproduction of a pre-historic saber tooth tiger skull following his Grande Ronde Valley fossils presentation at the Ale House in La Grande earlier this month. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer
 

“These are typical of the remains left by bison hunters in other areas during the Ice Age,” Van Tassell said.

Legs, tusks and vertebrae  were left at butchering sites because they have little meat on them. 

Van Tassell points out that no evidence has been found indicating that the animals found at Airport Lane were killed or consumed by people. No spear points or arrowheads were found, and there is no indication that the animals were butchered. Van Tassell believes that if there were butchering marks on the bones, they could have been lost because the fossils were damaged while accidentally being dug up. The fossils were uncovered during excavation on agricultural land. 

The absence of evidence of butchering marks or spear points does not deter Van Tassell, an educator with a perpetually upbeat and gracious personality. He remains convinced there is a real possibility that they were killed by people because of the type of remains left. He is not giving up on the possibility that his hypothesis will turn out to be correct.

“I’m hopeful. I’m always hopeful that (evidence of human habitation) will be discovered,” Van Tassell said.

The likelihood of an arrowhead or spear point being found on the Airport Lane area land is reduced by the fact that it is not known if it will be possible to conduct archeological digs on the land because it is on agricultural property.  

Van Tassell realizes that the odds of finding direct evidence of ancient human inhabitants in the Airport Lane area is low but the chance that it might be discovered  will forever intrigue him.

“It is tantalizing, a wonderful possibility,” he said.