State archeologist rejects findings at Walker site

Chopper tool
This artifact is among about 50 objects unearthed from a Walker hilltop in 2005 and 2006. Some archeologists believe this stone was used as a chopping tool by humans nearly 15,000 years ago. Minnesota's state archeologist has concluded the stones were formed not by humans, but by natural forces.
Photo Courtesy of the Leech Lake Heritage Sites Program

The site in Walker got national attention in January. A team of archeologists announced they'd found stone tools that could be nearly 15,000 years old. That would certainly make it the oldest known human habitation in Minnesota, and perhaps North and South America.

Now, a report from Minnesota State Archeologist Scott Anfinson rejects those claims. Anfinson says he doesn't think the unearthed artifacts were made by humans. He says it's more likely the rocks were formed by flowing water or glacial movement.

"There are lots of natural processes that can create sharp edges and what looks to be very good flakes taken off the edge of stone tools," Anfinson said.

Anfinson and several dozen archeologists got a chance to look at the artifacts three weeks ago at a symposium in Mankato. Anfinson says he polled several experts who all reached the same conclusion.

The Walker area 13,000 years ago would have been nearly surrounded by glaciers. Anfinson says it would have been an unlikely place to find humans.

"It would have been a very isolated, very formidable environment," he said. "So there's even a little bit of common sense that says why would anybody want to live there when they've got the rest of the new world south of them with much nicer places to go."

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Not everyone agrees with the state archeologist.

David Mather is the national register archeologist at Minnesota's Historic Preservation Office. He was also at the Mankato symposium.

Thor Olmanson
Thor Olmanson is director of the tribally owned Leech Lake Heritage Sites Program. Olmanson says his team should be allowed to complete its analysis of the Walker artifacts before archeologists draw conclusions.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Mather says he and many others believe the Walker site could be legitimate. Mather is nominating the site to the National Register of Historic Places. He says Anfinson's report won't change that.

"His personal opinion is that the site does not warrant further investigation," said Mather. "From the consensus at the Council for Minnesota Archeologists symposium, as I understood it, that puts him in a minority. His opinion is just an opinion."

Mather says it's way too early to dismiss the validity of the artifacts. He says the age and significance of similar sites in other parts of the country have been hotly debated for decades.

"Peer review in archeology, as in any science, takes a long, long time," said Mather. "If there's a final answer based on multiple independent investigations that comes within my lifetime, I'll be very interested to know the outcome. But I don't expect it anytime soon."

The northern Minnesota archeologists who unearthed the artifacts say they expected a heated debate over the Walker site. But they're calling the state archeologist's report "premature." Thor Olmanson is director of the tribally owned Leech Lake Heritage Sites Program. Olmanson says his team hasn't even completed its analysis of the artifacts.

"It's kind of a contentious issue and it's not surprising that there is some skepticism," said Olmanson. "I mean, that's the natural response. And I guess all I'm saying is, we need to proceed carefully and complete our analysis and produce our report before there's really anything to talk about."

The site is in the middle of an area that was once planned for development. Walker city officials have since agreed to preserve it. The Leech Lake archeological team plans to do more excavation at the site this summer.