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Kalispel Tribe archeological site provides new insight on history, cultural practices

Land in northeastern Washington purchased by the Kalipsel Tribe for new tribal housing produced an unexpected find: rock ovens that were built around 5,000 years ago. An excavation is now underway to uncover more secrets of that ancient era.

Kalispel tribe archaeologist Kevin Lyons said analysis of the left-over charcoal at the site has provided insight into the diet and culture of the ancient people who lived there.

“Salmon had to be imported, or brought up from the Little Spokane, but this is 3,000 years ago, so it's pre-horse, people are packing this around dried and processed,” he said. “Bitter root, there is a small patch of bitter root in this county, but most of the bitter root came from the channel scablands or Montana, but this pre-horse, that's a long walk, these folks were connected to very distant places early on.”

Lyons said the tribe decided to partner with Washington State University on the excavation.

WSU professor of archaeology Shannon Tushingham said archaeological field school students from WSU and other schools are getting valuable experience in what is called Cultural Resource management. That’s when archaeologists are called on to do assessments in advance of construction projects: “There's archaeologists who work for the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, all of these agencies, and they need people,” Tushingham said. “What's happening now with the infrastructure bill, there's a huge need for trained archaeologists, and very few trained archaeologists, especially after Covid, I haven't been able to have a field school for four years.”

Tushingham said students are also learning how to communicate and work with tribes on the project, something she said those in her field have historically failed to do.

The site where the ovens were located is believed to have been selected because of proximity to the type of rock used in the pits, and is a breezy location that would help stoke the fires.

The earth ovens involved digging a pit, starting a fire and placing rocks inside that would hold the heat, then a layer of foods like camas or fish wrapped in plant material like skunk cabbage. That was buried, then another fire started on top. Sometimes water was poured in to create a steaming effect.

Some foods, like camas bulbs, were cooked here, then dried and stored for later use. The team believes the site was a cooking camp only because no other signs of habitation have been unearthed.

Researchers will work to document the ancient site as much as they can before the housing development is completed on the site.