#49 Dr. Douglas Bamforth and the Mahaffy Cache

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture at the University of Nevada, Reno called “Clovis in your backyard”.  I’ve only just now gotten around to writing about it.  For that, I apologize to the 30 people that read this.  On to the post.

Dr. Bamforth and Patrick Mahaffy (http://neveryetmelted.com/categories/mahaffy-cache/)Dr. Douglas Bamforth is a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  He is also a Faculty Affiliate at the Center of the American West, also at the University of Colorado.  Dr. Bamforth came to UNR to discuss the 13,000 year old Mahaffy cache that was discovered in 2009.

As he tells it, a project fell into Dr. Bamforth’s lap that was nearly in his backyard.  His office received a called from a local man, Patrick Mahaffy, who said that some artifacts turned up during the landscaping of his back yard.  The excavation of a coy pond revealed a cache of 83 artifacts.

The Mahaffy Cache (http://academyll.org/files/Douglas%20Bamforth%20-%20Mahaffy%20Cache%20(Clovis).pdf)The cache included points of various sizes and stages of completion.  There were four different types of stone, two cherts and two quartzites, and none of it was local.  The chert types are called Kremmling and Bridger Basin chert (Tiger chert).  The quartzites were from Windy Ridge and the Uinta Formation.

Artifact types within the cache included core struck flakes and backed pieces (sharp edge with a non-sharp opposite margin).  There were also blades, which are twice as long as they are wide.  The blades included several accidental blades and four true blades.  Bifacial knives made of both chert and quartzite were also present.  Unique to this cache (in the world, according to Bamforth) was a large, two-handed, double-bitted bifacial chopper.

Dr. Bamforth’s biggest question was how old is the Mahaffy cache?  To help answer that question Bamforth used what he called “penguin logic”.  I honestly can’t remember why he called it that but it boils down to logic.  It is not necessarily a paleoindian cache just because there are paleoindian blades.  Also, there are no diagnostic artifacts in the Mahaffy cache.  There is nothing, like a Clovis point for example, that says, this cache dates to blank.

So, Bamforth used other indirect and relative methods of dating.

Two types of chert in the cache. (http://academyll.org/files/Douglas%20Bamforth%20-%20Mahaffy%20Cache%20(Clovis).pdf)The initial dating analysis discussed by Dr. Bamforth during the lecture involved the “black mats” of the Younger Dryas.  These “mats” were discussed by Vance Haynes.  Artifacts can be relatively dated by assessing their provenience in association with the mats.  In this case, however, many of the artifacts were already removed by the time Bamforth arrived and the rest of the excavated hole was too disturbed to make a clear determination. 

The name sake of the cache and owner of the property, Patrick Mahaffy, is rather wealthy.  Since the artifacts were discovered on his property it was up to him as to what would be done with them.  Dr. Bamforth suggested that they submit the artifacts to protein residue analysis by way of cross-over immunoelectrophoresis (CIEP), an expensive process.

All 83 pieces were sent for testing and four came back with positive hits.  To be sure, the four hits were run three times.  A backed chert piece came back with sheep protein.  Bear protein was found on a giant quartzite biface.  Another biface was used on a horse.  The final hit was a piece used on a camel.  The sheep and bear were not significant.  The horse and camel were.  The last time horse and camel species were seen in Boulder County was 13,000 years ago.  

So, the two pieces in cache that hit for horse and camel were either made and used in the 20th century or they date to at least 13,000 years ago.  Similarities in this cache to a biface in the well known Fenn cache suggest that the Mahaffy cache is Clovis.

Based on what they had found so far Bamforth wondered what the Mahaffy cache could tell him about the Clovis people.  His answer? Diet.  Bamforth explains.

Two-handed double-bitted biface. (http://academyll.org/files/Douglas%20Bamforth%20-%20Mahaffy%20Cache%20(Clovis).pdf)The tools were transported over long distances.  Some flake scars were rounded over from rubbing against other pieces.  The pieces made from material that was sourced further away exhibited more rounded scars.  Also, there was little evidence of resharpening on the Mahaffy cache tools.  In fact, they were barely used at all.  They seem to have been transported in the condition that they were found.  

Also, why was the cache found in Pat Mahaffy’s front yard?  According to Bamforth, Gregory Creek flows east out of the Flatiron Mountains near Boulder.  That creek runs right through Mahaffy’s back yard, or did, thousands of years ago.

Bamforth suggests that the cache was an insurance policy.  It was placed there for future use in that area.  The location and structure of the cache implies predictability and knowledge.  Those people planned to come back.  Bamforth feels that Clovis have been mischaracterized in the past.  They were not wandering and misguided.  They had purpose and direction.

The discovery of the Mahaffy cache and the results of the investigation prove what many already know.  There is much that we do not know and do not understand about Clovis culture and the cultures before them.  Much research is left to be done and more sites need to be found.

I found the slide presentation that Dr. Bamforth used here.

Written in Sparks, Nevada.


2008  The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology (iPad App), Oxford University Press, 2nd ed.   Developed by Handmark, Inc.

Clovis Culture Early Paleo-Indian culture dating to the period 9500-9000 BC and represened widely over the central and southern plains area of North America.  Clovis Culture communities are well known as big game hunters, especially fond of mammoth and bison.  They also took smaller game such as deer and rabbits, and used plant resources too.  They are mainly recognized archaeologically by a distinctive chipped stone industry which includes Clovis points.  The Clovis Culture is sometimes referred to as the Llano.

#39 Dr. Donald Johanson

Lucy, AL288 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lucy_blackbg.jpg)Two days ago I saw a post from the Reno Skeptics about a talk at the Truckee Meadows Community college.  The post referred to the Distinguished Speaker Series that they have every year.  This year’s speaker: Dr. Donald Johanson (think Lucy).  How could I not go?

My fiancé wife (just married!) and I got there about 40 minutes early so we could get good seats.  As always, I expect these events to take place in a 10,000 seat auditorium and have standing room only.  Of course there were very few people there and seating for only a few hundred.  All of those seats were full, though.

Johanson’s talk was titled, “Lucy’s Legacy: Our African Heritage”.  At first I was shocked and a bit disappointed that he is still just talking about Lucy.  Researchers are still learning from her but she was discovered almost 37 years ago!  I was pleased to find that most of the lecture was more broadly based.

Early on, Dr. Johanson talked about doing paleoanthropology and why he loves it so much.  He said what every successful scientist says which is to find your passion.  I firmly believe that the road to success was paved by people that found their passion and pursued it.  I’ve heard people say that what they want to do is too hard, too expensive, or requires too much education.  If you have that attitude then you haven’t found your passion.  That’s it.  No more discussion.  Having a passion for something means being blind to the road blocks and pushing through anyway.  You’ll know when you’ve found it.

Most of the lecture was about how great Ethiopia is and a discussion of the finds and geology of the Afar Region of Ethiopia, where Lucy, among others, was found.  It was a good paleoanthropological primer for the region.  He also discussed some of the more recent finds including the fossils of A. sediba.  The discoverers of A. sediba are saying that the fossils are ancestors of Homo.  Not only are they ancestors but they are the FIRST ancestors of Homo.  They are dated at about 1.9 mya.  Johanson say that the 2.2 mya jaw found in Ethiopia is ancestor to Homo, and therefore, so is Lucy.  The jaw is more Homo like rather than ape like so I tend to agree with him.  However, it makes me wonder whether there is a piece of evidence that would make him question the ancestral nature of Lucy.  I’m not saying that I question Lucy...I just want to know if he has an open mind and is open to changing it.

During the course of the lecture Johanson mentioned God.  It was in jest, somewhat, but still made me wonder whether he is a believer.  It may be that he made the mention simply because we do it without thinking.  Even I, a crazy atheist, say “god” sometimes.  He can’t seriously be a believer, though.  He is partially responsible for evolution being so prevalent in the world, after all.

I’m glad I went to the lecture.  Even thought I don’t always agree with Johanson, he is still a powerful figure in the world of paleoanthropology and is a great ambassador for the field.  His books are fun to read and teach you at the same time.  I even scored an autograph for is first book, “Lucy”.  I’m an autograph whore, though.  Only for scientists, though.

If you have a chance to see Dr. Johanson in person I highly recommend that you go.  You won’t forget it.


Written while listening to hour 9 (11:30pm PST) of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe 24 hour podcast, in Sparks, NV!


From the Dictionary of Archaeology, Peguin Reference, 2004, an entry chosen using a random number generator Pg 389, entry 9:

Pontian is a site in peninsular Malaysia of a boat burial of the early centuries AD associated with pottery similar to that from Kaula Selinsing, with decorative motifs also noticed at Oc Èo.  The boat is of Southeast Asian type.