North Dakota getting rare prehistoric artifacts

By Blake Nicholson
Bismarck, North Dakota (AP) 3-08

The handiwork of North Dakota’s earliest inhabitants – a selection of crude cutting instruments that have gone unrecognized for years – is being prepared for public viewing.

Clovis artifacts, named after Clovis, N.M., where they were first found decades ago, have been donated by some North Dakota residents who unearthed them in Golden Valley County. They also are known as “bifaces,” because they have been worked on both sides.

“They’re unfinished tools,” said Fern Swenson, director of the State Historical Society’s Historic Preservation Division. “Some of them would be on the way to spearpoints. Others could have been cutting tools or scraping tools.

“It’s the earliest evidence that we have here in North Dakota of Native Americans,” she said. “It’s so early that they can’t be attributed to tribal names that we use today. These people were nomadic people; they were traveling in small groups, not living ... in a permanent residence.”

The artifacts, estimated to be around 13,000 years old, were first found in 1970 on land owned by now-retired Golden Valley County rancher Don Abernethy, in the southwestern part of the state. People who found them did not know until recent years what they were.

“We had no idea,” Abernethy said. “We didn’t get too excited at first, just thinking they were kind of crude. They’re not like real nice arrowheads.”

Bruce Huckell, a University of New Mexico anthropology professor, became aware of the discovery a few years ago and identified the artifacts for what they were, Abernethy said.

Huckell declined to be interviewed, saying he was barred from doing so because of a commitment to the National Geographic Society, which has provided research funding. The society declined to allow Huckell to immediately be interviewed.

Swenson said the Clovis artifacts are not the first to be discovered in North Dakota; there are some in private collections. But she said it will be the first time there will be such prehistoric items on public display, and the small site in Golden Valley County where they were found is the first documented Clovis site in the state.

“There’s much to be learned since there are relatively few sites (nationwide),” she said. “With a collection like this you can learn ... how tools were manufactured. It also tells us the raw material of the stone, the type of the stone that was used.”

Swenson said it might take a year or two to prepare the artifacts for public display at the North Dakota Heritage Center on the state Capitol grounds in Bismarck. She said Huckell’s research will provide interpretive information that can be included in the display.

Just under 50 artifacts have been donated to the state. Abernethy estimated that about 180 have been found on his land. Some are being kept by the finders, and some were given away to others.

“We sure didn’t know for a long time that they were so important,” Abernethy said.