A major blow to Hells Canyon prehistory has been soil erosion caused by over-grazing domestic stock, mainly sheep. Soil provides the context and something close to a set of rules or guidelines for making sense out of archaeological remains.
Without the soil that surrounds them, artifacts are like words in a language without grammar. They become meaningless sounds.
And it's not just stone projectile points and the traces of ancient huts and hearths that are lost. The same sediments often preserve a record of the animals and plants that fed and equipped people over thousands of years.
Last year we tested a site that suffered heavy sheep grazing off and on since the 1880s. The Forest Service was half convinced nothing had survived to manage, but had us check it out to be sure.
By refining our excavation techniques, we were able to locate the edges of a 7,000-year-old fishing camp whose existence no one suspected. The site has already produced higher concentrations of identifiable fish bones than any other open site on the Snake River.
But these bones and hearths were found only a foot below the present eroded surface; the trampled and uprooted sediments that once held the secrets of the past 70 centuries are presumably still blowing in the wind. That's a depressing "loss of continuity" in some very useful information, given all the uncertainties involved in salmon restoration plans for the Snake River basin.
A rancher laments, "...with sheep grazing prohibited, another wedge is driven between the remembered past and the present and the future." It is impossible not to recognize the truth and feel the pain in those words. People who work land are more serious than people who play with it.
But there is also an unremembered past around us, one not easy to recognize or preserve, a span of time so huge we are still groping to find our way around inside it. The latest issue of American Antiquity includes an article reporting rock art images in the desert West have now been carbon-dated to almost 20,000 years ago.
The same issue has another article describing a valley in western Wyoming where new refinements in radiocarbon and chemical dating show three completely different rock art traditions were practiced at the same time for hundreds of years. Imagine Michelangelo, Picasso, and Gary Larson all scrawling away on the same cliff and you start to get the idea.
If stone age artists could tolerate that much diversity in how they represented the world around them, maybe we can discover ways to work, play and study in the same canyon.
The writer works for Rain Shadow Research, Inc., 114 N. Grand Ave., Suite D, Pullman, WA 99163. He has studied archaeological sites in Hells Canyon since 1985.