Author's note: This story was picked up by a national wire news service on 11 September 1999. The author of the article was not given a byline, despite the importance of the issue at hand. To maintain credibility, the article is reproduced here as it originally appeared and in toto, and is being put on the World Wide Web prior to the first chance for publication by papers that receive stories from the wire service in question.
By John Andrew Prime
A chance discovery of human remains in rural Bienville Parish this summer has pushed the history of human settlement in Louisiana back 75 centuries.
"It is one of the most important sites in the state of Louisiana in terms of research potential," said Thomas Eubanks, head of the state Division of Archaeology.
The site is more than 4,000 years older than Poverty Point, a West Carroll Parish complex of mounds that has not yielded any human remains. Eubanks said the earliest human remains previously found in Louisiana were from Tchefuncte, located on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
Those sites date from 600 BC to 200 AD, Eubanks said.
Jeff Girard, the regional state archaeologist excavating the site, said nationally there are only "maybe a half dozen sites with burials of comparable age" to those at the new site.
Girard said the site will be the subject of intense national study, not only for the human remains, but for the light it will cast on an era that is only dimly understood even by researchers, let alone the general public.
"Seven thousand years ago, the climate was warmer and drier than it is now," Girard said. "There was different vegetation, different animals. But we had no windows into that time here, until now."
In other ways, folks then were not much different from people living today, discoveries at the site show. They hunted deer and loved their dogs so much they were buried with them.
Eubanks said the site is significant because it shows signs of repeated settlement and dates from about the same period as mounds found at sites north and south of Monroe. Those are just a few days' walk from the mounds near Monroe, which could indicate the people who lived there built the mounds. That deserves further investigation, Eubanks said.
Prehistoric human remains were first found on the site, not far from the Loggy Bayou floodplain, 20 years ago. But initial investigation indicated they were no more than 3,000 years old.
Interest was rekindled in June, when three 13-year-olds -- John Stroud, Paul Hightower and Tripper Dickson -- explored the property near land owned by the Dickson family and came upon what turned out to be the skull of a child.
That prompted new investigation by state archaeologists, who carbon-dated charcoal found with the child's burial. That dating, by Florida-based Beta Analytical Corp., indicated the burial occurred 60 years either side of the date 5,630 B.C.
That was 3,000 years before the pyramids of Egypt, 4,300 years before Moses and 5,600 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. State researchers call the dig the Conly Site, after the man whose land it is on, regional folk singer Bill Conly. His family has long owned the 400-acre site.
"I saw that black soil probably 40 years ago," said Conly, who about 20 years ago called in state archaeologists to look at a skull he noticed among the deer and other bones scattered there.
Among investigators who visited the site was the late Shreveport physician and avocational archaeologist Clarence Webb, renowned for his work at Poverty Point.
"He suspected it was significant because he took money out of his own pocket to research it," said Skipper Dickson, Shreveport businessman and father of Tripper Dickson, one of the boys who found the baby's skull. "So you could say (Webb) had his finger in this from Day One."
Today's researchers have photographs from those earlier surveys as well as artifacts that were gathered. These will be studied anew.
So far, Girard and fellow researcher David Jeane, a member of the Arkansas Archaeological Survey, have identified five individuals buried at the sites examined so far. The position of one body, with flexed limbs, indicates a true burial, and is similar to burials at other sites of similar age in Alabama and Tennessee.
"I suspect we are talking about several generations of people visiting here," Girard said.
About 100 linear yards of a layer of "black earth" indicating human habitation is exposed, but it is unknown how deep this extends.
Next week, scientists from the National Resource Conservation Service will visit the site to auger boreholes to determine how extensive the site is. The layer will be under 12 to 15 feet of sediment, Girard said.
The bones found so far have been "beautifully preserved" and are practically fossilized, Girard said. Much of the preservation is due to the diet of the people who lived at the site. Great numbers of mussel shells indicate these animals were in their diet, and these made the soil alkaline, preserving the bones.
The people also left a great deal of the bones from their food, as well as the bone, horn and shell tools they made, at the site, Eubanks said.
River mud also helped preserve the site.
"The Red River virtually sealed this site in time, like Pompeii," said Skipper Dickson.
But there are already threats to the site.
Archaeologists fear vandals may cause some damage, even though the site is virtually inaccessible and none of the usual lures for thieves pottery and arrowheads are present. Stiff state and federal penalties face anyone removing the human remains.
But the greatest threat is from nearby Loggy Bayou, which frequently floods the area and which is now higher due to pooling from Lock and Dam No. 4 of the Red River Waterway, Eubanks said.
Girard is preparing a National Register of Historic Places nomination for the site. And Gerri Hobdy, state historic preservation officer, has written the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for assistance in protecting the site, based on the erosion caused by the rise occasioned by the newly navigable Red River. No reply has been received from the corps yet, though corps engineers and archaeologists visited the site in July.
Eubanks said members of the Caddo and Chitimacha tribes, both native to this region, were consulted and support the investigations, as well as efforts to protect the remains.
"It is imperative, from the tribe's perspective, that the human remains at this location be removed as quickly as possible," Caddo Indian Historic Preservation Officer Robert Cast wrote in a letter supporting the state's request to the corps. "Due to the erosional processes in this area, it is apparent that this site (and the human remains) are in great danger of being lost forever." He also said the potential for looting could "take away forever priceless information this site could provide."
While the future of the site including whether the public will be allowed to visit it is unclear, Eubanks said it demands further study.
"These (sites) represent a major period of cultural change for Native Americans and are markers of a particular time in history that extends all across North America," he said.
Eubanks said it was a time when people were starting to return to places they could call home, and a time when people started to build things.
"It is beginning to start (around that time) and it is starting in Louisiana," he said.
This page was created on September 11, 1999. It was updated May 12, 2004.
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