Intriguing secrets remain along the Palouse River, where water buried significant archaeological artifacts in 1969.
PALOUSE CANYON, Franklin County — The gathering wind feels angry and ancient, like an awakened sentinel irked by footsteps of the living on land set aside for the dead. An archaeologist, his back to the stiff breeze, wades through dry cheatgrass atop a tall mesa, its sheer walls cleaved from ancient bedrock by prehistoric floodwaters. He nudges the toe of his hiking boot toward a broad, oval-shaped depression in the ground, and frowns.
“This one’s been disturbed,” says Brent Hicks, whose career has been dominated by study of the original inhabitants of what might qualify as the Northwest’s own cradle of civilization.
He stands at a suspected burial site in a land where the first waves of humans occupying the vast, rugged lands of western North America eked out a hard living after the last Ice Age, about 13,000 years ago. Tribal legend, Hicks says, holds that some of the dead were interred in these high places so their spirits could be captured and lifted by these winds, which gather in the broad Snake River Valley and race up the narrow canyon to spectacular Palouse Falls.
In the decade since he last visited, Hicks suspects, looters paid a visit of their own. He is more dismayed than surprised.
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Fortunately, the site is but one of many in rarely trod nooks and crannies of the sprawling Snake River drainage in Washington and Idaho. Most have never been fully excavated nor, presumably, looted. The Palouse Canyon sites are unique in the unusually rich archaeological evidence they yielded a half-century ago — and in the mostly forgotten mad scramble to preserve them from a rising, man-made flood.
The canyon’s mouth is near the confluence of the Snake and Palouse rivers, the site of a native village noted by explorers Lewis and Clark in 1805. Human remains from that village, later disturbed by heavy construction, were reburied on a nearby hillside, beneath an obscure mass grave marking, “The last resting place of the Palouse Indians.”
But the canyon’s most-ancient secrets were found upstream, in a broad rock cleft just above the former flood plain of the Palouse River. In the late 1960s, as Americans waged the Cold War and took a giant leap for mankind to the moon, a hasty excavation of what became known as Marmes (pronounced “MAR-muss”) Rockshelter yielded ancient human and animal bones, tools and other relics since radiocarbon-dated to more than 11,000 years before present.
Bone fragments of Marmes dwellers, dating to about 10,000 years, were, at the time, the oldest recovered in North America — perhaps 700 years older than the now-famous skeleton of “Kennewick Man” that would be discovered downstream, along the Columbia River, in 1996.
For archaeologists, Marmes was a once-in-a-lifetime find: a single site occupied or visited by humans not just through a short span of ancient history, but continuously, for more than 11,000 years. The find was a brief national sensation. Citing researchers’ initial belief that bone fragments of “Marmes Man” showed signs of cannibalism, The Seattle Times in July 1968 described the midden from which some of the bones emerged as “one of the most exciting garbage dumps in the world” — a place where the ancient man’s remains “had been tossed after he had become dinner for his colleagues.”
Anthropologists speculated that further digging might reveal even older artifacts — perhaps key to unraveling the mystery of when and how humans first occupied the Americas, which continues to vex researchers to this day.
They never got that chance.
IN SPRING 1969, SPILL GATES on the new Lower Monumental Dam, about 20 miles downstream on the Snake, creaked shut, and today’s Lake Herbert G. West rose behind it. The floodwaters in front of Marmes Rockshelter seeped beneath a cofferdam erected to protect the cave and surrounding flood plains, covering the artifact-laden site with water, which, at its highest point today, laps right up against the historical treasure trove’s front door.
Scientists at the time lamented that what likely was a large number of important relics in the cave and, especially, a broad flood plain in front of it, had been lost to history forever. But only a half-century later, “forever” seems a more-relative term.
The future of Lower Monumental Dam and three companions along the lower Snake River is being debated with renewed passion, fueled by a 2016 federal judge’s opinion that the government should consider a new dam breaching to ensure the survival of endangered wild salmon. As that debate swirls, with arguments focusing on economics and species survival, people who specialize in antiquity already have begun quietly mulling a Snake free of deep lakes.
In the decades since floodwaters inundated Marmes, theories about the peopling of the Americas have been turned on their head. The former notion of a single wave of Asian immigrants crossing a Bering land bridge between Siberia and Alaska about 13,000 years ago (the approximate date of numerous “Clovis culture” remnants discovered in the U.S. West, including some in an East Wenatchee orchard in 1987) is now considered simplistic or even obsolete, thanks to the discovery of much-older evidence of humans in both North and South America. Some researchers now believe migrations began as long as 16,500 years ago, perhaps along a “kelp highway” on the Pacific Coast.
How the first people in the Columbia/Snake drainage — the former and current home of many present Native American tribes — fit into that picture is not clear, and that is the point: Modern exploration of sites such as the Palouse Canyon and, especially, similar, uninvestigated sites elsewhere along the Snake’s former banks, might provide enticing new clues. The Marmes site, after all, was discovered mostly by accident.
The first explorers of the Palouse Canyon’s cached historical treasures weren’t scientists at all. They were ranchers who had poked around in rock crevices for decades. One of them, John McGregor, suggested Washington State University anthropologist Richard Daugherty explore the area in 1952. Daugherty noted the rich potential, but excavation would not begin for a decade, with construction of the dam downstream already under way — and a clock counting down to the site’s reburial, this time by water.
Excavation began in 1962 at the rivermouth village site. But Daugherty soon discovered much more fruitful ground in the nearby riverfront cave, on land owned by rancher Roland J. “Squirt” Marmes. The team moved its operation to the rockshelter, then a broad alcove about 40 feet wide and 25 feet deep.
The depth and complexity of what they found astonished them.
INSIDE THE SHELTER, round storage pits, buried under successive layers of large basalt rocks crumbling from the ceiling, contained tools, traces of food and plants and weapons, and other materials suggesting longterm occupation. Two digs in the early 1960s yielded a wealth of artifacts, including butchered-animal bones and teeth, shells from as far away as the Pacific Coast, projectile points and scraping tools. Diggers also exposed large numbers of small human bone fragments, found beneath volcanic ash layers suggesting they were as much as 8,000 years old.
By 1964, scientists were satisfied they had unlocked many of the site’s mysteries, and were set to spend remaining days before the flooding scrambling to investigate other local sites that shared Marmes’ geological structure. “They knew they were running out of time,” Hicks says.
But new urgency was created the following year, when WSU geologist Roald Fryxell made new, startling finds at Marmes. Fryxell, racing the floodwaters to study soils between the rockshelter and the Palouse River, authorized rancher Marmes to bulldoze a trench from the mouth of the cave to about 40 feet in front of it, slicing the flood plain to a depth of more than a dozen feet.
The bulldozer exposed additional tools and human bones dated to 10,000 years — at the time the oldest found in North America. Fryxell, seeking publicity and funding, told reporters the broken bones belonged to a young hunter-gatherer whose companions might have “literally had him for dinner.” (Later research suggested that the bones were repeatedly split and burned not for cooking and eating, as Fryxell had speculated, but likely for ritual cremation.)
The site became a tourist attraction; thousands of state schoolchildren were bused in on field trips, as workers on the flood plain unearthed delicate ancient tools such as needles and awls. Additional digging in the rockshelter turned up remnants of cremation hearths, containing even more, older human remains. One of the site’s deeper excavations unearthed a small bone from a swan that later would be designated as the collection’s oldest dated artifact — 11,230 years.
“It was a very dynamic place to be,” recalls Paul Gleeson, who worked at the site as a college student, participated in excavations at the Ozette Village dig near Neah Bay, and much later worked for the National Park Service on cultural sites related to dam removal from the Elwha River.
Ripples from the publicity rolled all the way to the other Washington. Influential Sen. Warren G. Magnuson paid a visit, soon convincing President Lyndon Johnson to authorize money to build an impromptu, horseshoe-shaped cofferdam to protect the site from rising waters. Construction of the smaller dam began in winter 1968.
When the waters finally rose in February 1969, water seeping beneath the cofferdam overwhelmed pumps installed to drain it — exactly as predicted by geologist Fryxell. He and Daugherty, feverishly working through one of coldest winters on record, had already raced to erect wood boxes around some of the flood plain’s more-promising sites, covering them with plastic sheeting, and ultimately with 8,000 cubic feet of what they hoped would be protective sand.
Whatever deeper secrets remain at Marmes were lost to the water, and there they remain.
Daugherty, who years later would lead the excavation at Ozette, remained hopeful in a 2003 report, reminding the scientific world of what lay beneath the lake: “If it ever becomes possible for work at Marmes to resume, our excavations will be clearly marked.”
TODAY, THIS SEEMS an enticing possibility. But while it’s likely that removal of the lower Snake River dams would expose additional prehistoric sites, picking up precisely where the late WSU scientists Daugherty and Fryxell left off would be a longshot.
Native tribes, including the Umatilla, Yakama, Colville, Nez Perce and Wanapum, possess what now is a federally recognized claim to ancient sites on broad swaths of lands under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the dams. The tribes’ hard-won seat at the table was bolstered by the recent outcome of a bitter squabble over Kennewick Man. The skeleton of that man, known to tribes as “The Ancient One,” was finally reburied in February after a study revealed that members of the modern Colville tribes shared his DNA.
Both scientists and tribal leaders acknowledge that the long, rancorous squabble over Kennewick Man still hangs like a cloud of distrust over matters that pit scientific study against tribal and cultural rights. But it only served to reinforce long-held views of tribal members who have traditionally opposed excavations at sites known to contain burials, says Guy Moura, archaeology program manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
“The rockshelter area that was excavated had numerous burials,” he notes. “We presume there are more. It is not our policy to dig up burials. The potential spiritual loss is not outweighed by the potential additional knowledge to be gained.”
Jon Shellenberger, archaeologist for the Yakama Nation, agrees.
“It’s sort of like if your grandma’s cemetery was flooded,” Shellenberger says. “What would you do? There’s no need to go in and start studying the bones.”
That said, tribes might approve investigating other sites, without evidence of burials, that contribute to the knowledge of tribal history, some tribal leaders say. And some parts of history much more recent would be exposed, to everyone’s benefit.
For example, a native legend, passed all the way down to the last inhabitants of the Palouse River village and related to nearby residents in the 1930s, tells of the creation of Palouse Falls and other river features by the death throes of a giant beaver, who died at the confluence with the Snake. The beaver’s massive, vanquished heart, the legend holds, turned to stone and still stands on the west side of the Palouse River, where it joins the Snake.
That rock, once a regional landmark, also was covered by waters behind the dam; whether it still exists, or was destroyed as a shipping hazard, isn’t clear, Moura says. But if the Snake River dams came out tomorrow, he would be one of many on hand to see for himself whether the fabled Palouse heart rock remains.
Obviously, “That has traditional significance,” he says.
Gleeson notes that on the state’s west side, the Elwha dam removals exposed long-flooded physical features, including a “creation site” that had lived on in oral traditions of the Lower Elwha Klallams.
For all those reasons, tribes are not opposed to archaeological work “per se,” Moura says: Excavations or surveys of old river-bar occupation sites identified, but never properly examined before the dams were built, might even be necessary, because they would be subject to erosion — or looting — if the water receded.
“You’re going to have a lot of bare ground and sites that were (known) that will no longer have vegetation for at least a few years,” he says. “We’d have to keep a lot of eyes on that river.”
MOST EYES long ago turned away from the Marmes Rockshelter, which today is notable mostly for its profound silence. The opening of the cavern is still visible — barely, along a quiet lakeshore upstream from Lyons Ferry State Park. With no interpretive signage, it draws scant attention from anglers who beach boats along the crumbling old cofferdam, then cast for trout in the still pool inside.
From the nearest highway, a gated gravel road leads several miles to a pump station near what now is Marmes Pond. The land is publicly accessible but typically trod only by occasional fishers and hunters, history buffs, nature photographers or others inspired to bushwhack across the broken landscape. The most frequent inhabitants today are coyotes.
On a recent visit, archaeologist Hicks guides a visitor through the ankle-grabbing deep grasses, sweet sage, crumbling basalt and a small phalanx of guardian rattlesnakes to some of the canyon’s ancient sites. Some are obvious, others fully hidden in daunting cliffs plunging several hundred vertical feet to the river. Most have been studied, in some fashion, long ago. Together, they paint a picture of a staggeringly beautiful, unfathomably rugged former homeland for humans who lived hard and died young.
People’s marks on the land endure. Short walls of stacked rock once helped hunters herd elk or other game into box canyons, or off cliffs, for slaughter. Large stacked-stone cairns still stand as markers, exact purpose unknown. A network of rockshelters throughout the canyon likely served as storage reserves for caching of tools, and perhaps food, for people living year-round in the valley below.
Marmes left an indelible mark on recent history, as well. Hicks’ exhaustive 2004 “Final Report” on the Marmes project data relates a Marmes legacy both meaningful and regrettable.
Magnuson called its exploration a “landmark precedent” — an example of the federal government stepping in to preserve antiquity. And publicity about the work, although it paid little mind to concerns of local tribes, is credited with sparking new interest in prehistoric peoples. It also provided impetus to federal legislation that ultimately would return, for proper burial, the exhumed remains and cultural items of more than 30,000 Native Americans.
In the wake of the Kennewick Man decision, the bones of what Hicks determined to be “at least 38” men, women and children found around Marmes were returned to local tribes for reburial.
The 1960s’ rushed archaeological work was less than stellar by current standards — especially in terms of curation. Hicks found many field notes and records sloppy or missing. And large numbers of Marmes artifacts, used as a “teaching collection” at WSU for decades, were pilfered or lost. But thanks to the size of the collections, what remains — most of it in the archives of WSU, in Pullman — has proved valuable.
Hicks is convinced the archaeological record will reveal that humans were present during the great glacial floods 13,000 years ago, and that they reoccupied the newly Channeled Scablands quickly. Understanding how they lived, and how their lives changed throughout what likely was a tumultuous pre-contact history, is the next challenge for Northwest archaeology, he believes.
He doubts that Marmes would be revisited. But as a digger at heart, he confesses intrigue in learning what else might be found along the Snake’s long-flooded banks.
If the dams go away, other sites beyond Marmes beckon, he says. “Some of those haven’t even been looked at.”
Even using the study tools of yore, 80 suspected habitation sites were identified before dams were built — and that was in the area behind the Lower Monumental Dam alone. Since the West’s occupation by white settlers, 14 other dams have left much of the once-mighty Snake, which springs from the Rocky Mountains and drains an area even more vast than the Columbia, beneath deep, silent — and sheltering — water.
Fifty years after it was first asked at Marmes, the question, today writ larger, remains: What lies beneath?