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The Americas’ most ancient bead discovered near Douglas

Found at a mammoth kill site in eastern Wyoming, the artifact is estimated to be about 13,000 years old.

La Prele bone bead showing polished ends (upper) and side view with incisions (lower). ("Use of hare bone for the manufacture of a Clovis bead"/Science Reports)

The campsite sat along Le Prele Creek near the North Platte River, not far from present-day Douglas. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to call it a hunting camp.

While that may not sound particularly unusual, this camp wasn’t for processing deer or elk — but a mammoth. The site was active about 13,000 years ago. 

At some point, one of the people there likely lost a bead. Perhaps it fell off of their clothing, University of Wyoming archaeology Professor Todd Surovell thought aloud, though it’s likely impossible to say for sure.

Either way, it’s a small thing, less than a centimeter long. It’s an irregular, hollow cylinder with a few divots and a yellowish, brownish color. And it was among more than 45,000 artifacts cataloged there. But when Surovell first saw it in 2016, he knew it was special.

“I remember when we found this thing, it looked very peculiar,” he said. “We’d seen nothing like it before and seen nothing like it since.”

Now, it’s the oldest documented bead in the Americas. 

Bunny bones

The bead appears to be made of a hollow bone from a hare, researchers stated in their recently published article in the journal Scientific Reports. 

Of course, determining that took time. In particular, it took help from a lot of science and an international team, including from England.

“Michael Buckley, our collaborator in Manchester, he’s the one who really developed this method for identifying archaeological animal bones,” Surovell said, explaining their detailed process of figuring out what animal this tiny object came from. 

Other researchers included those with ties to Wyoming, Surovell said, including McKenna L. Litynski (UW), Sarah A. Allaun (History Colorado), Todd A. Schoborg (UW), Jack A. Govaerts (UW), Matthew J. O’Brien (Chico State University), Spencer R. Pelton (UW), Paul H. Sanders (UW), Madeline E. Mackie (Weber State University) and Robert L. Kelly (UW). 

One early theory was that this may not be a bead, Surovell said, even with its curiously marked sides and polished ends. They could be carnivore bite marks, some suggested, and the edges were smoothed going through an animal’s digestive tract.

“Digestive pitting on long bone shaft fragments and polishing on fracture surfaces can occur on bone fragments passed by coyotes … and grooves on the bead surface are similar in size and shape to ‘scores’ produced by carnivore gnawing,” researchers wrote. 

However, Surovell said, if that was the case, why was there only one such bone in the entire site, so close to significant human activity? And why would it be this particular bone that’s rarely chewed on by carnivores because of its low nutritional value? And beyond all that, there were “generally rare to non-existent” signs of carnivore-modified remains in the entire area. 

“It would require a remarkable series of events for the only carnivore-passed bone tube recovered from the site to be found in this location,” researchers concluded. 

Beyond that, other similar hare bone beads had been found in the Mountain West from later dates. 

This bone from a lagomorph — the order of species including rabbits and hares — is also the first evidence that people at that time were working with these small prey animals.

“Now that said, I can’t tell you that people killed that animal, that they didn’t find it dead,” he said. “I can’t tell you that they hate that animal. What I can tell you … is that they pulled one bone out and made one bead. Now, I’d be surprised if that’s all they did, but I know they did that much.”

The La Prele Mammoth site near Douglas, Wyoming. (Todd Surovell/University of Wyoming)

Bigger picture

Overall, Surovell calls this La Prele Mammoth site “a real treasure.”

“It’s a treasure for the state of Wyoming, it’s a national treasure, it’s an international treasure,” he said. 

Discovered in the late 80s, Surovell said, researchers have been analyzing the area since 2014, and will finish work there during the 2024 field season. 

The bead is just part of the larger story of early humans that the site tells us, Surovell said. That included everything from evidence of tool making and sewing with bone needles to using pigments for paint. 

The bead will be housed in perpetuity at the University of Wyoming archeological repository. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.