The Marmes rock shelter is one of the richest and oldest archaeological sites in North America, where some of the oldest human remains and tools were uncovered.
Unfortunately, almost as soon as this rich site was discovered, it was submerged beneath an artificial lake.
Unknown artifacts and remains remain buried to this day.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the most incredible facts about the Marmes rock shelter.
The Marmes Rockshelter is a Window into Prehistory
More than a geological formation, the Marmes rock shelter is an archaeological site of profound human importance that can teach us about the lives and practices of the aboriginal inhabitants of North America thousands of years ago.
Although arrowheads and other minor evidence of human habitation exist across North America, archeological finds with burial sites and human remains, ritual areas, and tools have been rare.
We are still trying to piece together what the lives of prehistoric North Americans were like.
The discovery and survey of the Marmes Rockshelter in the 1960s was a tremendous discovery that fascinated the country and provided some real answers to our most pressing questions.
The Marmes Rockshelter was Discovered by Richard Daugherty in 1962
Daugherty was a young associate professor at Washington State College when he was invited by a friend to visit some caves and rock shelters along the Palouse River.
He found the digs productive, and when he returned 10 years later with a funded grant to do further research, he took some students with him to visit a rock shelter on the property of a local rancher, Roland J. Marmes.
He immediately recognized a rich archaeological site that eclipsed the other sites his team was looking into.
The project immediately shifted from searching for sites at the mouth of the Palouse River to excavating and studying this one rock shelter on Marmes’ property.
The Rockshelter is a Natural Structure, Used by Humans
A rock shelter is a small cave or opening at the bottom of a cliff or bluff.
Unlike a solutional cave, they are usually small or medium-sized sheltered areas that you can walk into, which don’t connect to larger cave structures.
The Marmes rock shelter is about 40 feet wide and 25 feet deep, beneath a basalt cliff.
Rock shelters are formed naturally through processes of erosion and were the perfect place for early humans to shelter themselves from the weather, cook, and rest.
These were the “caves” of “cave men.”
Ancient humans didn’t live in this structure permanently, as we occupy houses.
Instead, they kept track of many different rock shelters and used them as bases to store food and resources in their nomadic wanderings.
The Site Proves Humans Inhabited the Area 8000 Years Ago.
When Daugherty found the Marmes rock shelter, he immediately discovered storage pits, lined with broken and decomposing mats made of grasses and reeds.
They found evidence that humans had used the cool temperature of the cave to store food.
By the end of the first digging season, they had uncovered 11 partial or complete skeletons, including the skeletons of children.
They were preserved by a layer of ash from the Mazama volcano which erupted more than 6500 years ago.
When the skeletons and tools were carbon dated, some were found to be more than 10,000 years old.
Early Humans Were Hunters – And Traders
Based on the traces of food found preserved and the tools that they uncovered, Daugherty and his team inferred that the humans who lived during this time were hunter-gatherers who hunted elk, deer, and beaver while foraging for mussels and shellfish.
They found stone tools, including spearheads, scrapers, mortars, and pestles.
However, some of the most interesting artifacts are those that prove early humans were either prolific travelers or communicated and traded with other societies much farther away.
In remains that are 7000 years old, Daugherty found shells with holes in them, used as necklaces.
These shells belong to a species of snail that lived only on the West Coast, more than 200 miles away.
Spearheads were recovered that were made of agate, a stone that does not occur naturally in the area.
These findings can only be explained by inferring that early humans in the area were either very mobile or part of a larger network of societies that were connected by trade.
At First, Researchers Saw Proof of Cannibalism
As Daughterty and his team continued to dig into the Marmes rock shelter, they uncovered a cremation area with the remains of 38 more individuals, reduced to fragments of bone.
The bones they found were splintered and broken.
The largest was a skull fragment only a couple of inches long.
When a press conference was given, announcing the discovery of human remains, the immediate assumption was that early humans in the area had been cannibalistic – breaking the bones apart to eat the marrow inside them and burning the bones in the process of cooking human beings.
This theory turned out to be completely false.
It might make a good story, but the cremation area in the Marmes rock shelter is a burial site rather than a cooking area, and it makes sense that the bones were broken up.
Modern cremation uses incredibly high temperatures that early humans couldn’t replicate.
They broke up the bones to help them burn better, to completely reduce the body.
The Site Was Flooded in 1969
This rich archaeological site was threatened almost as soon as it was discovered.
The survey and discovery took place at a time when construction was underway for the Lower Monumental Dam – a project that would flood the entire area.
After the discovery of the rock shelter, President Lyndon Johnson signed an executive order to help protect it from flooding by constructing a 1900-foot-long, 500-foot-tall cofferdam.
Unfortunately, this failed spectacularly.
The dam was built on top of the gravel, which engineers understood would allow water into the site, but they thought they could offset this by pumping it out.
When the water started flooding at 45,000 gallons a minute, the pumps failed. Now, it is at the bottom of a lake.
There is More To Discover
The Marmes rockshelter was never surveyed properly, so we may never know what there is to find.
From the beginning, there was no consistency in the process of excavation or the field recording of findings, and much of the excavation was done at the last minute with a bulldozer.
The dig was never finished, and in the desperate final days, before it flooded, the team constructed heavy wooden cribs around undisturbed sites covered the trenches they had dug in plastic, and covered them in sand.
The Marmes rockshelter is now deep underwater, but if the reservoir is ever drained, there are likely still archaeological artifacts and relics of early human civilization to be uncovered.