Researcher digs into grass and stems to study early Americans

Elizabeth Kallenbach is using cutting-edge tools to trace humanity’s use of native Oregon plants through 12 millennia of archaeological basketry and cordage.

Kallenbach, an anthropology doctoral candidate in the College of Arts and Sciences and the anthropological collections manager at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, received an award from the National Science Foundation to study textiles recovered from Paisley Caves in Oregon’s Great Basin, to see what they can reveal about how people engaged with changing landscapes over time.

About 14,000 years ago, as Pleistocene glaciers retreated and lake levels dropped, marshlands in the Great Basin expanded rapidly, creating suitable conditions for hunting, fishing and plant gathering, including fiber plants used in textiles.

“People used bark from sagebrush, bitterbrush and juniper to weave rope and basketry, while wetland plants such as tule were most often used for basketry and cordage,” Kallenbach said. “However, stinging nettle, dogbane, flax and milkweed allowed for finer cord that was used for net-making, sewing and many other uses.”

The research illustrates the antiquity of Northern Great Basin weaving traditions.

“We know people used these same plants in 19th century Klamath and Modoc basketry,” Kallenbach said.

About 3,000 years ago, when the Great Basin became dryer, more like the landscape seen today, people used upland areas for root gathering. During that time there is an introduction of flax, also a high-elevation fiber plant used in fine cord-making.

The award from the foundation will allow Kallenbach to use modern tools like radiocarbon dating, microscopy and elemental analysis to pinpoint exactly when people began to use specific plants in textiles. She has also been collecting plants to create a reference collection, which, together with UO archaeologist Jaime Kennedy’s reference collection, will augment the museum’s resources for paleoethnobotanical research.

Part of the award also will fund work with tribes local to the area on modern weaving and textile practices.

UO archaeologists have been working to better understand life in the Great Basin for nearly a century. Kallenbach’s research is based on items that UO’s Paisley Caves field schools uncovered between 2002 and 2018.

This summer, field schools from the Museum of Natural and Cultural History will return to the Great Basin, working in Connley caves and the Rimrock Draw rock shelter.

—By Lexie Briggs, Museum of Natural and Cultural History