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Were Basques The First?

Recent discoveries add an intriguing wrinkle to the human map


From out of the Earth

Little did Domingo "Buzzy" Ybargoitia know that by drilling a well to bring water to his sheep, he would change the way we view the history of humans in the New World.

"My girls need to drink, that's all I was thinking about. It gets mighty dry around here come late summer anymore. I don't know what's going on, but I do know my granpoppa never had any trouble keeping his flock watered, and my pop didn't either. But I've had to truck it in from Marsing when it gets really hot."

Ybargoitia manages his family's sheep operation in Idaho's lonely Owyhee Mountains, an hour's drive over rough roads from the tiny Oregon village of Jordan Valley. Two years ago this coming April, he brought a drilling contractor from Nampa to install a dependable well. It was tough drilling until they got through the dense lime deposits, or caliche, that underlies so much of this remote southwest corner of Idaho.

"A couple of times, I was afraid those boys were going to give up," says Ybargoitia. "They'd pull their bit out of the shaft and just shake their heads when they saw how chunked up it was getting."

On the second morning of drilling, they unearthed an astonishing surprise. The hole was below the caliche, down to about 26 feet, when Ted Burquart of the drill crew pulled what looked to be a child's doll from the mud and sand accumulating next to the hole.

"At first, I just thought it was just one of those Troll dolls you see hanging from rearview mirrors," explained Burquart. "I wiped the crud off and took a better look at it. It was whittled out of rock, I could tell that much. And what I thought was crazy Troll hair all flattened out was really a funny little cap. Like a beret, maybe."

Ybargoitia knew immediately what it was. As a youth, he had spent too many years with the Oinkari folk dancers of Boise to not recognize a traditional Basque txapela, even if it was small enough to top a five-inch figure. He stopped the drilling and sifted through the pilings with his fingers, wondering what else might have been brought up. Within minutes, he had found several blades, chipped to a razor's edge on both sides, ranging from 9 to 20 centimeters long. Each one had a notch into which a spear haft could be set. He also found a small, partially-eaten and mummified sheep thigh, impaled on a nearly petrified willow skewer.

"Back then, I didn't know a Clovis point from a Buck knife, but I sure as heck know a lamb kebab when I see one."

He was also relatively certain that all of these items--particularly the primitive figurine--were highly unusual coming from so far below the surface. Ybargoitia sent the drill crew home, gathered up everything he'd found into his lunch box, and called the Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, Oregon. He was referred to the Cultural Anthropology Department.

"When Buzzy showed me those things, I about fell out of my chair," said Dr. Benton Schrall, the department head. "North American artifacts aren't exactly my field. Still, I recognized immediately that he had stumbled onto something very significant."

That afternoon, Dr. Schrall e-mailed a colleague at Washington State University in Pullman, who put him in touch with Dr. Lawrence Riggs, the chairman of WSU's Archaeology Department. Said Dr. Schrall, "When I described to Larry what I had, right there on my desk, the first thing out of his mouth was, 'Whatever you do, don't tell any Indians about it!' I guess he got burned pretty bad on that Kennewick Man deal."

With two of his brightest grad students in tow, Dr. Riggs drove to Ontario the next day. As soon as he saw the artifacts, he knew exactly what he would be doing for the next several summers. "Clovis points in Idaho? And from 7 meters down! That alone is an archaeologist's dream, without even considering the totem figure."

Fearful of letting that figurine out of his sight, Dr. Riggs shaved a thin specimen from the bottom of one tiny foot and sent it to Le Duchamp Laboratoire in Lyons, France, a world leader in intra-spectral comparative analysis. He then spent the next six weeks organizing what would become the largest--and most covert--archaeological dig in Idaho's history. Even Ybargoitia was sworn to secrecy.

"Larry Riggs had me sign a paper that said as long as I didn't tell anyone else about what I'd found, his university would foot the bill for another well. He came down on spring break, along with a nine-seater van full of students, and they set up a cyclone fence around that spot and put a tent over the hole. It about killed me that I couldn't tell anybody. It was like getting to be in a movie or something, only I couldn't even let my friends know I was in it."

The excavation proper began after the semester ended on May 21, 2005, and by Labor Day of that year, Dr. Riggs had confirmed what his instincts had been telling him since he first saw the figurine. Le Duchamp lab sent him their analysis of the sample in early July. They had tested the specimen three times, and for further confirmation, they had sent a portion to another independent laboratory in Quebec to verify their findings. There could be no mistake: The sample was from a unique soapstone found only in a region of northern Spain, on the southern slopes of the Pyrenees Mountains.

It took 10 weeks of excruciatingly detailed soil removal for the team to get down as far as the drill bit had reached, but at a depth of just under 8 meters--the investigators came across a strata of soot and charcoal, indicating the remains of an ancient campfire. Within a 5-meter radius of that fire pit, they uncovered a dozen more spear tips--sophisticated Clovis points, all of them--the gnawed bones of several seemingly domestic sheep, a shredded remnant of what appeared to be a leather drinking sack (a bota), and a human skull.

By summer's end, Dr. Riggs had circumstantial evidence that early humans had migrated to this hemisphere from the Iberian Peninsula. But most astounding was the level at which this body of evidence had been found. The geological strata in which the items lay dated from a very narrow (and little understood) time frame known as the Proto-Paleolithic, indicating that human beings had put their footprint on the New World 40,000 years before anyone had previously believed possible.

Even more momentous were the "associative implicatory collateral traces," as they are called in the field of paleoanthropology, which implied that wherever these people came from, they brought their sheep with them.

Rattling the time line

It has long been held that nomadic homo sapiens first found their way to this continent, then on to South America, by crossing a land bridge that resulted when ice age glaciation drastically lowered water levels in the Bering Sea, thereby exposing a 1,300-kilometer-wide path from Siberia to Alaska. Less than 100 years ago, those who studied human migration patterns believed this gradual population of the Americas began no more than 5,000 years BP (before present).

But, owing much to refined archaeological methods after the turn of the last century, relics have turned up that demonstrate humans came to these shores much earlier. The first Clovis points (named after the New Mexico town near the discovery site) were found in 1932. A decade earlier, an even more sophisticated--though lesser known--tool was found, also in New Mexico, called the "Folsom point." Even more obscure are the "Cincinnati points," disinterred when a mound-builder tomb was viciously scraped flat by a mentally disturbed individual with a bulldozer in the mid-1950s.

Yet it was the Clovis points that reshaped the chronological map of the earliest Americans. The venerable archaeological establishment--referred to affectionately by eager newcomers as the "Stuffy Petes"--was shaken to its core to learn the Clovis culture dated back to between 11,500 and 13,500 years.

For decades, alternative theories have flourished as to how humans came to be here, the most notable being that the first settlers didn't come across the Bering Bridge at all, but instead made their way around the ice fields of the North Atlantic--a la the kayaking Inuit--from the prehistoric Solutrean culture of central France. Yet all trace of Solutrean influence ends in Europe around 15,000 BP, indicating that if there is any truth to the so-called "Solutrean Solution," it would put humans in the New World 5,000 years before the occurrence of the Clovis culture. (Current mainstream archaeology holds that it is likely the Solutrean tool-makers were overcome by the more advanced Magdelinian culture--which created the magnificent rock art in the Lascaux caves--and were either gradually absorbed, or were eaten when the mammoth supply dried up.)

There is another hypothesis that Pleistocene Era Scandinavians were the first to reach these lands, but this notion has been widely discredited and is taken as a serious possibility only by the notorious Viking cults and fringe archaeological communities in Stockholm and Oslo.

With all of this to consider, Dr. Riggs had a serious problem on his hands. When all preceding evidence--and even the wildest of theoretical conjecture--put humans in this hemisphere no earlier than 20,000 years BP, how was he to convince his peers that he had proof men were here 60,000 years ago?

The Pamplona Connection

In mid-September of 2005, the excavation had to be put on hold because of the '05-'06 school year. Dr. Riggs locked down the site and returned to Pullman, threatening his student helpers with dire consequences should they, in any way, share their secret.

"I told them they had a choice. Either keep this discovery under their hats, or find themselves a nice little junior college somewhere and transfer to it."

As to the man who owned the land on which the site lay, Riggs promised Ybargoitia that if he continued his silence, the skull would be named in his honor.

"I was still itching to tell someone," explained the rancher. "But after Doc Larry made that offer, I zipped up like a pair of Wrangler straight-legs. 'Ybargoitia erectus ...' got a nice ring to it, don't you think?"

Over the ensuing months, Riggs could not keep his mind off the project. He Fed-Ex'ed several individual Clovis points to experts around this country and Canada with the caveat that he could not divulge where the blades originated, but that he believed them to be hoaxes and was looking for confirmation to that effect. Every last artifact returned along with the opinion it was indisputably authentic.

Riggs personally delivered the skull to the Northwest's top forensic archaeo-reconstructionist, Sir Bingham Smythe-Peebles, who at the time was on the faculty of the University of Idaho, 10 miles away in Moscow. It was the garrulous and eccentric Smythe-Peebles, a transplant from Great Britain, who determined the skull's sex and recorded all the cranial measurements. He reconstructed a clay face over a plaster casting of the skull, using a technique developed by his mentor, Sir Clyde McManus of Cambridge. (The author has not seen for herself that reconstruction, but it is rumored the features strongly resemble those of Robert Beltran, better known as Commander Chakotay from Star Trek Voyager.)

Smythe-Peebles also made a cast of the skull's dental configuration, which Riggs compared to the bite patterns on the mummified lamb's hindquarters. It was not a match, so obviously, Ybargoitia erectus was not a solitary traveler.

Finally, it was Smythe-Peebles who discovered the smidgen of soft tissue, preserved almost miraculously within a bicuspid on the upper jaw. He and Dr. Riggs arranged with three different DNA testing facilities--including the FBI lab in Virginia--to have this tissue analyzed. (Tragically, Sir Smythe-Peebles didn't live long enough to learn of the results. He fell off a skywalk in Spokane in March 2006 in an attempt to get away from a former student who was stalking him because she was convinced he was really the actor John Cleese.)

As soon as finals were over the following May, Riggs was back at work in the Owyhees, scraping diligently away at the site. By then, he had an even greater mystery to ponder. The DNA results had returned from two of the labs he had queried, and it was perplexing news, to say the least. (In typical fashion, the FBI lab had misplaced the sample that had been sent to them, and when it was finally located, it was incorrectly labeled with the name of a suspected organized crime victim whose body had been discovered when an Atlantic City casino was demolished. As of this writing, they are still trying to sort it out.)

The labs had been fortunate enough to find mitochondrial DNA within the samples, and as requested, they compared that DNA to all the identified human family groups. Both labs came to the same conclusion: This skull belonged to one, and only one, human sub-population, found today primarily in northern Spain/southern France. He was a Basque.

"When I found out about that," says Ybargoitia, "My hair stood up on end. My granpoppa came over here from Pamplona in '29 and started running sheep on these same hills. And now, they find this old Basque fella down there in the ground. That's one heck of a coincidence, if you ask me."

Dr. Riggs believes it to be more than mere coincidence. In November 2006, he announced his discovery to a limited audience of academic archaeologists and released his evidence for peer review. In January of this year, it became available to the general public. Yet it was over the course of last summer's excavations that a novel and somewhat shocking thought began to take form in Riggs' mind.

"Assuming that all the evidence is viable and that there really were Pleistocene Basques here 60,000 years ago ... that means they simply could not have come across the Bering land bridge, because the Bering corridor didn't open up until 50,000 years ago."

How, then, did they come to be here? Chewing thoughtfully on a sprig of cheat grass, Riggs gazed out over the eerie landscape of the Owyhee Mountains. "What if these people actually migrated back into Eurasia over that bridge, but were here in the New World long before the Proto-Paleolithic? What if so many Basques came to this area in the early 20th century because they were answering the call of some primeval homing instinct?"

When reminded that the figurine had been carved from an Old World stone, indicating a migration opposite to what he had suggested, Riggs grimaced. "Oh yes ... I forgot about that."

Dr. Riggs will be back to the excavation site this May, and likely many Mays to come. Before he had to abandon the work last September, his students had cleaned off a small arc of a slab of fire-hardened cottonwood, about 22-centimeters thick and extensively worn on the outer rim. Riggs is eager to find what is at the center of that cottonwood disc. Evidence of an ancient axle, perhaps?

"You have to think that if these people could have had botas that long ago, why not the wheel?"

One more intriguing question among many. And the world awaits answers. In the meantime, Ybargoitia has had another well drilled and no longer has to worry about his "girls" getting water during the dry times. "I was there for every inch they went down, sort of wishing they'd pull up something else, and sort of wishing they wouldn't ... if you know what I mean."

The Nampa Image

The figure discovered on Domingo Ybargoitia's Owyhee sheep ranch is not the first puzzling artifact to come from deep beneath the Idaho surface, nor is it the most mysterious. In the summer of 1889, one H. Grumbling and an assistant were drilling a well near Nampa--at the time, a mere village of 347 people--when it appears they brought up what would prove to be a source of controversy for the next 100-plus years. A local man, M.A. Kurtz, was feeling through the slurry being dredged up by a steam-powered sand pump when he found a one-and-one-half-inch-long relic, fashioned from clay. The hands and feet had broken off, along with most of the right leg, but it was clearly a human figure.

The most remarkable thing about it, though, was the depth from which it came. The digging apparatus at the end of the shaft had reached 320 feet down, below many layers of sand, clay and rock, when it appeared. Coming from that level, the relic would have had to be 1.5 million years old by modern dating standards--1.3 million years older than the earliest sapient humans.

In short order, the relic gained national attention with noted figures at odds over what the find meant. A prominent geologist of the day, G. Frederick Wright (who, for a time, was in possession of the artifact), saw it as proof that Darwin was wrong and the Bible was right. Professor Frederic Putman, curator of the Peabody Museum in Boston, regarded it as evidence of "the great antiquity of man in America," as an ally wrote. John Wesley Powell, a geologist and adventurer, was convinced it was a hoax, despite the fact that several respected early Nampans were present at the time it was found, and they presented sworn testimony that it could not have been planted in any way.

Today, the "Nampa Image," as it came to be known, is only one of the many aberrant curiosities Young Earth theorists use to argue their case. The artifact lies at rest in the basement of the Idaho Historical Museum in Julia Davis Park, locked away from public view. No definitive or convincing explanation for either its existence or discovery has ever been found.

--Dr. Roberta T. Axidea

Dr. Roberta T. Axidea teaches Comparative Linguistics at Eastern Washington State University. This article appeared originally in the Euskal Herria Journal of Science.