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Moises Aguirre and Mark Mickles discover prehistoric Clovis point artifacts in an East Wenatchee apple orchard on May 27, 1987.
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On May 27, 1987, while installing an irrigation sprinkler pipe through an apple orchard on Grant Road in East Wenatchee near the Columbia River, orchard workers Moises Aguirre and Mark Mickles uncover a cache of 11,000-to 12,000-year-old prehistoric tools known as Clovis points buried about 20 inches below the surface. Clovis points are spearheads that were used by prehistoric peoples to hunt. The discovery excites scientific interest worldwide but raises concerns among members of the Colville Tribe. Portions of the site will be excavated in 1988 and 1990. After each dig the pits will be back-filled and protected from intrusion by four-ton concrete slabs.
Mack and Susan Richey and Rick and Joanne Roberts jointly owned the East Wenatchee site at the time the discovery was made. The Richeys later bought out the Roberts's interest in the property. The site has been variously known as the Richey-Roberts cache/site, the Richey cache/site, and the East Wenatchee Clovis cache/site.
Ash Over Artifact
The discovery did not receive any publicity initially, but by 1988 it had developed word-of-mouth interest and a team of scientists from Washington State University arrived to examine the site.
Hill Williams, a reporter for The Seattle Times, described the discovery at the time of the 1988 excavation after nearly a dozen stone spear points had been unearthed:
"The find, being excavated by anthropologists from Washington State University, could shed new light on the first people to appear south of the vast ice sheets in what is now Washington state. It could turn out to be the oldest evidence of humans in the state. The spear points were of a style not used after about 11,000 years ago. In addition, ash from an ancient volcanic eruption is mixed with the find, helping date the artifacts. The people in those times lived in a near-glacial environment still populated by huge animals that would become extinct: giant sloths, camels, oversized forms of bison and near and possibly mastodon. The artifacts are a distinctive style known as Clovis points. Peter Mehringer, a WSU anthropologist, said the discovery has turned up more of the Clovis points than have been found anywhere else, even in the Southwest, where the Clovis people used them to hunt mammoth" (April 12, 1988).
The volcanic eruption appears to have come from Glacier Peak.
The name "Clovis" refers to a small town in north central New Mexico near the Texas panhandle where many early artifact discoveries were made. Prehistoric peoples across the portion of North America not covered by ice sheets made the stone spear points known as Clovis points about 11,500 years ago.
The East Wenatchee cache predates Kennewick man (found near the Columbia River in 1996) by about 2,000 years and Marmes man (found near the Palouse River in 1968 at a site since inundated by Herbert G. West Lake behind the Lower Monumental Dam) by about 1,000 years.
In addition to spear points, other artifacts recovered from the East Wenatchee site include a chopper, scrapers, blades, bifacial knives, an engraving tool, and three flaked stone axes or adzes. Some of the artifacts tested positive for the presence of blood, and one knife tested positive for human blood. This could indicate an accidental self-inflicted cut during the butchering process. Michael Gramly, chief archaeologist during the 1990 dig, hypothesized that the artifacts were a cache left for use during a fall or winter hunt but for some reason never retrieved. At some later point scavengers, probably wolverines, disturbed the cache, eating at least one bone artifact and scattering fragments.
Some of the Clovis points found in East Wenatchee exceed nine inches long, making them some of the largest found anywhere to date. They are variously made of agate, chalcedony quartz, and mastodon bone. The East Wenatchee site also yielded nearly 70 artifacts during the two digs, the most Clovis points yet found a single site.
Controversy and Compromise
A second excavation, this time utilizing a team of volunteers from 12 states and two Canadian provinces, began in early 1990. On October 22, 1990, members of the Colville Confederated Tribes, concerned that the excavations might be disturbing an ancestral burial ground, held a protest demonstration at the site of the archaeological excavation. Work was halted for several weeks and then allowed to proceed on a limited basis.
In July 1992 the Washington State Historical Society purchased digging rights to the East Wenatchee site from Mack and Susan Richey for $250,000. The Richeys then donated all of the artifacts that had thus far been removed from the site to the Society. Prior to this time these artifacts had been in Buffalo, New York at the Buffalo Museum of Science under the care of Michael Gramly, the director of the 1990 dig.
Artifacts Under Apples
The agreement between the Richeys and the Historical Society included the stipulation that the site would not be excavated again for 15 years -- until 2007. Washington State Historical Museum director David Nicandri told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "The points have been in the ground thousands of years. A few more years won't hurt. The passions seem to require a cooling period so a different generation of people can deal with it, and I wish them better luck" (July 8, 1992). In addition to being protected by concrete slabs, the excavated area was once more planted with apple trees.
At the time the East Wenatchee Clovis artifacts were discovered, most scientists believed they exemplified perhaps the oldest evidence of human life in North America. Over the following two decades this theory has evolved. Several prominent archaeologists now (2012) posit that North and South American human habitation dates from as much as several thousand years before the Clovis people.
The extent of the East Wenatchee Clovis cache/site has not yet been established, nor has it been determined whether the points and other artifacts were used as hunting tools or as ceremonial objects. Presumably the artifacts identified thus far may only be the very beginning of what future digs in East Wenatchee will reveal about prehistoric life and the area's early inhabitants.
Hill Williams, "New Clue To State's First People?" The Seattle Times, April 12, 1988, p. A-1; Hill Williams, "A Stone's Throw Away -- Artifacts With Residue Of Blood Alter The Scenario," Ibid., October 2, 1988, p. B-2; "New Pact Lets Archeologist Return To Wenatchee Dig," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 5, 1990, p. D9; "Stop Excavating Indian Burial Sites, Tribes Urge Archaeologists," Ibid., May 4, 1991; Bill Dietrich, "11,000-Year-Old Artifacts: What Is A Fair Price?" The Seattle Times, March 7, 1992, p. A-20; "State Historical Society Buys Dig Rights," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 8, 1992, p. B-1; Bill Lee, "Who Knew Archaeology Could Be So Controversial?" Yakima Herald-Republic, November 20, 2005, p. C-9; "Wenatchee Valley Ice Age Floods Overview," Wenatchee Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau website accessed September 29, 2006 (http://www.wenatcheevalley.org/); "Prehistoric Clovis Points," Douglas County Community Network website accessed September 29, 2006 (http://www.douglaspud.org/); Richard Michael Gramly, "East Wenatchee Clovis Site," The Archeology Society of Ohio website accessed September 29, 2006 (http://www.ohioarch.org/); Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington's Past: A Road Guide To History, revised edition (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995), p. 110; R. M. Gramly, The Richey Clovis Cache (New York: Persimmon Press, 1993); Gary Haynes, The Early Settlement of North America: The Clovis Era (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002); "Natural and Geological History," The Palouse Scenic ByWay website accessed October 2, 2006 (http://www.palousescenicbyway.com/; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Kennewick Man" (by Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org/(accessed October 2, 2006); "Fifteen Fun Facts About the Washington State History Museum," Washington State History Museum website accessed October 2, 2006 (http://www.wshs.org/). See also: "The Clovis Conflict, 1987-1992," Wenatchee World website (http://clovis.wenatcheeworld.com).
Note: This essay was updated slightly on January 30, 2012.
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Clovis point artifacts found in East Wenatchee apple orchard, 1987
Courtesy Washington State Historical Museum
Clovis spear points found in East Wenatchee, ca. 1987
Courtesy Douglas Public Utility District