The figurine from Nampa (Idaho, USA)

The figurine from Nampa (Idaho, USA)

A small clay figurine of a human was found in 1889 at Nampa, Idaho. It came from a well boring, at a depth of around 90 metres, where the clay geological stratum of the Glenns Ferry Formation dates to the Pliocene-Pleistocene transition, around 2 million years ago. This stratum is sealed by a basalt layer. It is about 37 mm long and appears to be a representation of a clothed woman. The surface had concretions of iron and patches of anhydrous red oxide. Clay balls were found at the same general depth, displaying similar iron oxide discolouration. American archaeologists at the time of the discovery believed that were similarities between this figurine and those of Upper Palaeolithic Europe.

The difficulties with an object of this nature are immense. The evidence as recorded supports the genuineness of the discovery and it is likely that the figurine had spent a considerable time below the ground at the site. However, we do not know how well sealed the clay layer was by the basalt at this spot; in other words, is it possible that the figurine is of much more recent date (as we would expect from our current understanding of how humans colonised the Americas)?

Explaining the find

There are numerous mechanisms by which the figurine could have worked its way into the Pliocene-Pleistocene clay (through fissures, through mining activity and so on). It need not have lain at the 90 metre depth reported, but could have been pushed there by the drill. It is also interesting to note the clay balls found at the same general depth, close to the solid bedrock. This might suggest that a variety of material had descended fairly rapidly through the deposit, by a mechanism currently unknown but by no means mysterious or supernatural, to end up at a boundary through which it could not pass. This is familiar enough at a much smaller scale in archaeological stratigraphy: worms are responsible for slowly burying objects ever deeper as they undermine them when burrowing.

The so-called Venus of Willendorf

The so-called Venus of Willendorf (Austria), a typical Upper Palaeolithic figurine

While this explanation may sound like special pleading, one important point does remain. There is not one other single artefact of human manufacture from the whole of North or South America that is anywhere near as early as this, by a factor of one hundred! If the Nampa figurine were genuinely as ancient as the claims for it, then there ought to be similar objects from the same geological era. Although there have been claims for such objects, they are mostly even less convincing than in this instance.

It is also not true that this figurine resembles figurines from the European Palaeolithic. As can be seen from the so-called ‘Venus of Willendorf’, the typical figurine of this type has exaggerated female sexual characteristics, with enlarged breasts, broad hips and enormous buttocks; others have prominent vulvae. Although there is considerable variety among the figurines, all of them have this exaggerated femininity and none has the stick-figure quality of the clay model from Nampa.

There is a good discussion of the object on C Feagans’ blog, A Hot Cup of Joe.