EAST WENATCHEE, WASH. -- The left-handed craftsman who lived 9,000 years before Christ may have left his tools hanging from a tree branch and died before he could collect them.
Or they may have been buried for later recovery or as part of a ritual.
Either way, evidence of the unknown craftsman's talent now lies exposed in the wet earth of an East Wenatchee apple orchard. "We have a real master at work there," chief archaeologist Michael Gramly said.
The excavation of 11,200-year-old stone and bone tools will help shed light on Clovis people, one of North America's earliest human cultures, he said.
Scientists say this is the first Clovis site, which was discovered in 1987 by workers digging an irrigation ditch, found relatively undisturbed. Clovis remains are named for a town in New Mexico where they were first identified in the 1930s.
Gramly has said the tools were likely left by people who came over a land bridge from Asia and were among the first human inhabitants of this continent.
Scientists agree, he said, that it is pointless to try to connect any living people, such as members of the Colville Confederated Indian Tribes, who have protested the dig, to remains more than 4,000 years old.
"I took that as gospel," he said. "Obviously it is not gospel to the Colvilles."
Tribal religious leaders told Gramly their legends have them arising directly out of the North American earth, and that their oral history dates to the Clovis era.
Although Gramly has insisted there is no evidence this is a burial site, there are some inconsistencies, including Gramly's own past speculation that it could be one.
Peter Mehringer of Washington State University, who led a one-week dig at the site in 1988, also reported to the state last year that human remains might be found.
In 1989 letters to the owners of the orchard and artifacts, Mack and Susan Richey, University of Arizona Clovis expert Vance Haynes wrote of "great potential for human remains."
"The most important aspect of your site is the potential for the first understanding of what the Clovis people were like morphologically," Haynes wrote. "Most physical anthropologists would guess they were Mongoloid, but there are a few who would consider the possibility of their being Caucasoid. The latter would be big news."
Gramly said the only Clovis site ever to yield human remains was the Anzick site near Wilsall, Mont., discovered in 1968. Fragmentary remains of two children were found.
But the dig came up against Indian protests over a possible grave desecration. A tentative settlement has allowed digging of 17 objects, including a 9 1/4-inch-long stone spear or knife point.
"That's the largest Clovis point that's ever been found," said Gramly, of the Museum of Science in Buffalo, N.Y. "It's probably a knife."
The volunteer crew of 25 includes D.C. Waldorf of Branson, Mo., one of the nation's leading experts and practitioners of the art of chipping stones into points, called flint knapping. The skill is in reading the texture of the stone so that the striking does not break it the wrong way, Waldorf said.
By looking at the largest Clovis point, Waldorf can deduce the maker was left-handed and had about 10 years of experience, which would place him in his late thirties.
Clovis points were used only during the 500 years ending 11,000 years ago. The base of each point was notched or grooved to make it easier to fasten to spear shafts. Although some archaeologists believe humans were present in the New World tens of thousands of years before the Clovis culture arose, the most common view is that Clovis people were the first humans to appear south of the ice barriers at the end of the last ice age.
Because of the size of the cache, scientists have speculated that the tools may have been in a leather bag the owner left and then failed to recover. But more likely is that the site was a ritual place, perhaps for initiation or religious ceremonies, and the objects were deliberately buried, Gramly said.
A fear of disturbing ancestral bones prompted members of the Colville tribes to protest at the site. The tribes also won a promise from Gramly that he would remove only the 17 objects already exposed, and stop digging immediately if human remains were found.
Gramly's compromise was something of a surprise because he has a permit to dig up anything he wants, and because sonic testing has revealed other buried objects.
And any new excavation is at least a year away as the interested parties try to agree on a plan for a dig.