Why Discovery Of A Small 13,000-Year-Old Bead In Wyoming Is A Big Deal

At 13,000 years old, a tiny 7-millimeter-long bead discovered in Wyoming’s famous La Prele Mammoth archaeological site is the oldest bead in the Americas and it provides a glimpse into the hunter-gatherer culture from the end of the Ice Age.

AR
Andrew Rossi

February 25, 20247 min read

The La Peele bone bead, left, has polished ends (above) and a side view with notches in it. Its overall length is 7 millimeters. At right, archaeologists excavate at the site in Converse County.
The La Peele bone bead, left, has polished ends (above) and a side view with notches in it. Its overall length is 7 millimeters. At right, archaeologists excavate at the site in Converse County. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

A tiny bead has become one of the biggest discoveries from a renowned Wyoming archaeological site in Converse County.

A new paper published in Nature describes a 7-millimeter-long bead found during excavations at the famous La Prele Mammoth site. The tube-shaped bead is made from bone from either the foot or finger of a prehistoric hare.

Testing the bead determined it is nearly 13,000 years old, making it the oldest known in the Americas. It’s another small artifact with big implications, providing a better view into prehistoric Wyoming.

Mammoth Munching

The La Prele Mammoth site, discovered in 1986 not far from Douglas, is a spot where a young Columbian mammoth was either killed or scavenged by a group of prehistoric people. The site is believed to be around 13,000 years old, placing it in the Pleistocene Period.

Given the age and some distinctive artifacts, the people at La Prele were likely from the Clovis culture, one of North America's oldest known human cultures.

Discoveries at the site include a partial mammoth skeleton surrounded by stone and bone tools, distinctly Clovis. Evidence suggests that a group of the Pleistocene hunter-gatherers butchered the mammoth carcass at this spot, temporarily living there and moving on once the carcass was bare.

Wyoming State Archaeologist Spencer Pelton is one of the authors of the new paper describing the La Perle bone bead, along with lead author Todd Surovell, professor of Archeology at the University of Wyoming.

Many discoveries at the La Prele site have been found in large clusters, buried 10 to 12 feet underground. Pelton said these clusters suggest larger structures were erected at the spot while the hunter-gatherers butchered the mammoth.

“We think (the clusters) represent the floors of ancient houses that date to just shy of 13,000 years old,” he said. “They probably camped for a couple of weeks, maybe while they processed animals, fixed the tools from hunting, processed and scraped some hides, repaired clothing, that kind of thing. And then they'd be off. If I had to guess, the site was probably occupied longer than a day, no more than a month.”

Pelton, who’s spent several seasons at the La Prele Mammoth site, says it’s a difficult site to excavate. But once the archaeologists dig deep enough, even the smallest artifacts are thrilling discoveries.

“Once you get down and start finding artifacts, it's definitely worth your while,” he said. “You find phenomenal stuff, like the oldest bone bead in the Americas.”

  • this map shows where in the La Peele Mammoth site the bone bead was found, the tiny yellow diamond int he excavation.
    this map shows where in the La Peele Mammoth site the bone bead was found, the tiny yellow diamond int he excavation. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • An aerial view of the La Prele Mammoth site in Converse County.
    An aerial view of the La Prele Mammoth site in Converse County. (Todd Surovell, University of Wyoming)

One And Only

The La Prele Mammoth site has always been a big deal in the archaeological world, but the bone bead has become an international sensation. That discovery started with the Wyoming archeological equivalent of “X marks the spot.”

Pelton said the ground where the bead was discovered had a distinct reddish hue. The color came from red ochre, a natural clay used by the Clovis and several prehistoric cultures worldwide.

He said the site “was completely stained with this dark, red-pink hue, right in the middle of what we think was an ancient house.”

Archaeologists dug into the red-stained earth, carefully placing it in buckets and sifting it through a screen to isolate any artifacts. That’s how they found the tiny bone bead.

“When it popped up in the screens, it stuck out of us,” he said. “Once we cleaned it up and stuck a small pointy object through, we realized it was hollow and looked like it had been worked into a bead.”

Like all scientists, the archaeologists at La Prele didn’t immediately accept the uniqueness of their discovery. After all, no beads have been identified from any other Clovis site.

All the possible origins of the bead were considered and examined before the 7-millimeter bone tube was confidently described as a bead, a deliberately crafted ornamental artifact.

According to Pelton, the key to identifying the bead as a bead is its overall shape and appearance.

“It has this polished appearance,” he said. “Both ends are rounded off like they've been intentionally worked into a bead. There's also a couple of cut marks on it that look like they may have been left from when people were making the bead, but we don't exactly know what those are.”

La Prele was already known for holding rare Clovis artifacts, such as several delicate bone needles. The bead was unlike any other artifact in the decades of work at the site.

“It was really out of place,” he said. “There was nothing else like it around it.”

Bead And Bone

Beads weren’t revolutionary 13,000 years ago. Beads found in archaeological sites in Eurasia — the landmasses of Europe, Africa and Asia — are between 15,000 and 30,000 years old.

The La Prele bone bead is about 12,940 BP (years before the present). It’s not the oldest bead in the world, but definitely the oldest bead in “the New World” of North and South America.

Pelton and many other archaeologists always assume the Clovis culture made and used beads, even without any direct evidence.

“We know people brought beads with them when they came to the new world around 14,000-15,000 years ago,” he said. “But we'd never found any beads in association with the Clovis.”

The La Prele bone bead “sealed the deed.” It’s the first bead associated with a Clovis-aged site and the oldest confirmed from the Americas.

“It provided a crucial link between the Old World and the New World,” he said. “We knew people were making beads after that, but we never had that crucial link between the two, and now we've got it.”

In addition, the bone that was shaped into the bead has its own archaeological significance. It’s the first secure evidence that the Clovis culture used hares, another long-held assumption confirmed by a tiny, hard fact.

  • CT scans show cross sections of the La Perle bone bead.
    CT scans show cross sections of the La Perle bone bead. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • Diagrams showing the leg bones of a modern snowshoe hare with the yellow lines marking the location of where the bead could have come from. The actual La Perle bead was made from bone from a prehistoric hare.
    Diagrams showing the leg bones of a modern snowshoe hare with the yellow lines marking the location of where the bead could have come from. The actual La Perle bead was made from bone from a prehistoric hare. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

One More Season

For the last decade, archaeologists have continued excavating at the La Prele Mammoth Site every year. One final field season is planned for this summer.

The excavation will focus on a previously unexcavated section of the site. An assessment of the site using a bucket auger, long pipe sections stuck deep into the earth to reach the layer of interest, revealed enough artifacts to suggest another cluster is buried underneath.

Expectations will be high after the discovery of the La Prele bone bead. Pelton has no expectations of what will be discovered this summer, but he can think of one thing everyone wants to find.

“A complete Clovis point,” he said. “It’s one of the rarest things in American archaeology, very rare pieces of weaponry. We found the end of a Clovis point but haven't found a complete spear point yet. That would be really phenomenal.”

Another desired discovery is a bone from another extinct Pleistocene mammal. Mammoths are awesome, but North American camels and horses also roamed Wyoming 13,000 years ago.

“There are some lingering questions about how much people hunted them,” he said. “Some of them haven't ever been found. Finding one of those extinct critters would be pretty fun.”

Meanwhile, the archaeological analysis of the La Prele Mammoth site is ongoing. One study hopes to determine how the Clovis culture built their “houses” and how families lived and partitioned themselves inside.

Discoveries like the La Prele bone bead are small but essential pieces contributing to the larger story of the Clovis culture’s life in the Pleistocene. Pelton described La Prele as “as much of a Pompeii situation as you could ask for in a hunter-gatherer site,” which is high praise in archaeology.

“It’s one occupation,” he said. “People came, killed a few animals, camped there for a little while and left this fairly pristine record of what happened during that time. We don't often find that. It's a snapshot of a month in the life of a hunter-gatherer living at the end of the Ice Age in Wyoming.”

Andrew Rossi can be reached at arossi@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Andrew Rossi

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