Oregon Experience

Luther Cressman, Quest For First People

By Kami Horton (OPB)
April 30, 2014 7 a.m.

Could Oregon caves hold the secrets to how and when people first arrived in the Americas? More than 70 years ago, University of Oregon archaeologist Dr. Luther Cressman believed that was the case.


In 1938, Cressman and his students made a groundbreaking discovery that changed archaeology and continues to have profound effects on science today.

They uncovered a cache of 10,000-year-old sagebrush sandals. They are the oldest footwear ever discovered. Over the next 30 years, Dr. Luther Cressman would challenge the prevailing ideas about when and how humans first arrived in the Americas.

Cressman was a one-time Episcopal priest and the former husband of famed anthropologist Margaret Mead.

In 1929 he was hired to teach sociology at the University of Oregon. But after excavating an ancient Indian burial mound in Southern Oregon, he quickly became fascinated with the study of prehistoric human life. He changed his focus and began conducting pioneering archaeological work throughout the state.

Within a few years he was the state’s self-taught archaeological expert, earning the title “Father of Oregon Archaeology.” He went on to establish the University of Oregon’s Department of Anthropology, where he was director for 30 years.

When radiocarbon dating was discovered in the 1950s, he persuaded scientists to conduct some of their first tests on Oregon lava flows. Those tests determined when Mt. Mazama erupted, subsequently forming Crater Lake and leaving an ash layer over most of the state

That date allowed Cressman and other researchers to pinpoint the age of human settlements throughout Oregon. His findings showed that people were living in the Americas thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

The idea was radical. Many researchers and institutions dismissed Cressman’s work. But he would not be deterred. Working with scientists and laymen in a variety of fields, Cressman continued to make discovery after discovery in ancient sites around Oregon.

Today, the latest scientific testing could prove Cressman’s controversial theories correct.



Cressman, Luther. Sandal and the Cave: The Indians of Oregon, 1962

Cressman, Luther. Prehistory of the Far West: Homes of Vanished People, 1977

Cressman, Luther. A Golden Journey: Memoirs of an Archaeologist, 1988

Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa, 1928

Mead, Margaret. Blackberry Winter, 1972

Aikens, Melvin; Connolly, Thomas; Jenkins, Dennis. Oregon Archaeology, 2011

Aikens, Melvin. Archaeology of Oregon, 1986


Dr. C. Melvin Aikens Anthropology Professor Emeritus, University of Oregon

Bill Cannon Archaeologist, Bureau of Land Management

Perry Chocktoot Culture and Heritage Director, Klamath Tribes

Dr. Tom Connolly Director Archaeological Research, Museum of Natural and Cultural History

Dr. Don Dumond Anthropology Professor Emeritus, University of Oregon

Dr. Leland Gilsen State Archaeologist of Oregon, 1978 – 2002

Dr. Dennis Jenkins Archaeologist, University of Oregon

Patty Krier Museum of Natural and Cultural History, University of Oregon

Paul Patton Resource Specialist, Oregon State Parks

Niles Reynolds Curator, Klamath County Museum

Jack Swisher President, Fort Rock Valley Historical Society



Fort Rock Museum

Klamath County Museum 

Favell Museum

Fort Rock State Natural Area

Klamath Tribes

Burns Paiute Tribe

Oregon Rock Art

Oregon Archaeology Travelling Museum

Oregon Archaeological Society

Oregon Natural and Cultural History Museum

Oregon Association of Archaeologists

Oregon Historical Society

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South-Central Oregon Caves Yield Early Human DNA, July 12, 2012


U of O Archaeologist Finds Evidence of Humans In Oregon 14,000 Years Ago, July 17, 2012


Herald and News: Oldest Sandals In The World Come To Klamath Museum, Oct 25, 2013


Think Out Loud

 New Evidence for Early Prehistoric Oregon Population, Sept 10 2013


Oregon Field Guide

 Summer Lake Revisit 2009


Summer Lake Dig, 2004