Archaeologists study the cultures and activities of past groups of people by excavating and analyzing what’s left of their built structures, tools, weapons, pottery, fire pits, and other artifacts. Geoarchaeologists explore the relationship between archaeological evidence and the geologic setting in which it is found. They analyze soil, sediment, and buried charcoal (possibly evidence of an ancient campfire) to locate potential archaeological sites and determine the age of found artifacts. They look for evidence of natural processes—eroded rocks, deposits of windblown sand, formation of soil—that altered and covered over archaeological sites and artifacts. Based on evidence, geoarchaeologists reconstruct past climates and natural environments that affected the daily lives PaleoIndians—the early inhabitants of North America.

In search of the earliest people on the plains

The Odyssey Archaeological Research Program at the University of Kansas is housed at the Kansas Geological Survey. The goal of the program is to find evidence of the first PaleoIndians in the Central Great Plains. In the process, researchers are striving to gain a better understanding of the late Pleistocene and early Holocene environments in which those early people lived.

At the Scheuerman mammoth site near Scott City, Kansas, scientists and KU students have been digging for clues that could tie the remains of a 15,500-year-old mammoth to nearby evidence of early stone-tool making. They are looking for geologic evidence that shows the toolmakers hunted and killed the mammoth, which would prove PaleoIndians lived in Kansas much earlier than now thought. It is known that PaleoIndians were in the area at least 11,000 years ago, and mammoths became extinct about 12,500 years ago.