Digging Up History: Students uncover 12,000-year-old artifacts at a secret site in rural Louisiana

The site somewhere in Vernon Parish is so old that agriculture was in a primitive form. Many of the tools and artifacts discovered at the secret site, which researchers estimate date back 12,000 years, were used in the preparation of food.

This Week in Louisiana Agriculture brings us along to a secret archeological dig site in Louisiana’s Vernon Parish, a rural area known for its thick stand of timber. However, this recently discovered site reveals the area’s history predates the Agricultural Revolution.

“The site looks like it was continuously occupied from that era at the end of the Ice Age all the way through poverty-point times--the other mound building cultures such as Marksville the OSU campus Mounds,” said U.S. Forestry Service Archeologist Matt Helmer. “This place was continuously occupied all the way through all the way up to the present day and that’s pretty rare for us in Louisiana.”

Holes found on the site are from ancient posts that were likely where a home stood. Another way scientists know how old this place is the arrowheads that come from the Clovis people--several have been found at sites in the Kizashi National Forest, including a partial one here.

According to University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL) Research Project Director Erlend Johnson, Ph.D., the land was much different back then.

“The Clovis are the first widely accepted broad habitation and they’re traditionally thought to have been large game hunters,” Johnson said. “There’s some differences in interpretation that are emerging now, but they’re hunting. People think of the Clovis as going out and hunting mammoths. They joke about Clovis points as the AK-47 of the Paleo-Indian period.

Johnson didn’t bring his students out here to dig on a hunch. He says—for good and ill—the site is a target-rich environment.

“From previous studies—so, there was a phase one study where they systematically tested all this and just some of the highest density, so we knew that there was probably going to be something good here,” he said. “It’s also been heavily looted, which tells you that people are finding stuff.”

On top of looting, this area was heavily damaged during Hurricanes Laura and then Delta, which you can still see signs of here. Helmer had just two days afterward to get the funding to secure this site.

“This area got heavily damaged in Hurricane Laura and Delta in 2020, and so we knew how important this site was,” Helmer said. “The damage from the storm—so you guys can see all around here all of the uprooted trees—that brings all these root balls up to the surface that rips all of that archaeological material out of context.”

The dig here in Vernon Parish is not just a chance for us to learn about Louisiana’s past but for Louisiana students to learn about a career. Sarah St. Germain here is a student at ULL, she’s sifting through the dirt for artifacts and picking up insights on how to work.

“They make tools; they’ll find some stone, and they use rocks or a deer antler to flake off little pieces like this to make spear points arrowheads at times,” St. Germain said. “You know, stuff like that, and what we’re finding mostly is the remnants of these tools —so like, the small pieces that weren’t used.”

Many of the tools and artifacts being discovered here were for the preparation and use of food the site is so old that agriculture was in primitive form here, which they estimate dates back 12,000 years.

Researchers hope to learn more about the native inhabitants of that area as the artifacts salvaged from that site are sorted, cataloged, and examined.

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