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Ottawa County

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Ottawa County, Oklahoma

The Afton Springs Site

Mastodon teeth uncovered at Sulphur Spring.

Photo from Holmes' excavation of the spring in 1901.

William Henry Holmes (1846-1933), curator of Anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum in the early 1900's, traveled to Oklahoma in 1901 to investigate a report of prehistoric mammoth and mastodon bones being found in association with spear points. Holmes believed that humans had been in the Americas no longer than 4,000 years and thus humans and Ice Age (or Pleistocene) animals could not have co-existed on the continent at the same time.

Holmes discovered near the town of Afton a marsh where settlers had boxed in a flowing spring which produced drinkable water with a slight sulphur taste. The spring was known locally as Sulphur Springs. Using the labor of a hired crew, Holmes diverted the water flow from the spring and cleared about two feet of accumulated "muck" from the area. Below, he found a layer of compacted, fine sand. Further digging revealed mammoth and mastodon teeth and bones jumbled together with modern horse bone, prehistoric spear and arrowpoints, deer antler billets used to shape stone tools, bone awls and stone knives.

The association of the modern horse bone with the Ice Age elephant bones demonstrated that the stone tools were not necessarily Pleistocene in age. Since most of the materials were confined to an area about three feet in diameter, Holmes concluded that the bones and tools were either washed or were thrown into the spring basin and settled together in a heap at the base of the formation.

This work at Sulphur Springs in Ottawa County represents the first excavations in Oklahoma undertaken by a professional archaeologist. Over the 20th century the springs filled and were cultivated. Now the area can only be distinguished by being slightly wetter than the surrounding land.

The stone spearpoints recovered during the Holmes excavation have been compared to points from other sites and now are believed to date to the Woodland period (2,000 to 1,200 years ago). A deer antler from the springs has been radiocarbon dated to around 3,000 years before present times.

While the Holmes expedition to northeast Oklahoma could not substantiate the association of Pleistocene animals and human hunters, further work in Oklahoma has helped push the arrival date of people to the continent back to at least the end of the Ice Age and perhaps much earlier.


"Flint Implements and Fossil Remains from a Sulphur Spring at Afton, Indian Territory" by William Henry Holmes, Report of the US National Museum for 1901, Paper #2, 1903.

Number of Prehistoric Sites in Ottawa County Identified to Time Period

Paleo = ?-8,000 BP / Archaic = 8,000-2,000 BP / Woodland = 2,000-1,000 BP / Village 1000-500 BP
BP (before present)


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