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Early hair sample raises questions

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WOODBURN, Ore. (AP) - Under a small Woodburn city park may lie the answer to who are the earliest Oregonians yet discovered.

Scientists have found an ancient strand of hair in Woodburn's Front Street Park - a human hair that may have been left behind before modern American Indians settled in North America a few thousand years ago.

The hair, found in a core sample during a June 1999 dig, could be one of the oldest found in the Western United States, said Alison Stenger, director of the Institute for Archaeological Studies.

"We came out with a dirt clod and inside the dirt clod was a human hair 14 inches long," she said. "It was so old there was no pigment."

While scientists have yet to determine its age, the layer of soil it was in dates back 11,000 to 12,000 years.

The soil beneath the park is part of an ancient buried wetland, one of three being studied by Stenger and scientists from the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. The other sites are Mammoth Park, adjacent to Woodburn High School, and Legion Park, near Highway 214.

The hair raises the question of just who peopled North America first.

Some scientists are beginning to believe the first people may not have genetically resembled American Indians.

"I'm absolutely convinced that there were multiple populations here and the hair represents one of those populations," Stenger said. Those populations could have been here long before modern American Indians appeared, she said.

Given current theories that all humans migrated from elsewhere, the term "Native American" could be an oxymoron, said Cleone Hawkinson, a physical anthropologist with Friends of America's Past.

And the fact that a population lived in the New World once doesn't mean their descendants exist today. "The hardest thing for people to understand is how long ago this was. There was a high probability that groups would die out," she said.

Within weeks, scientists will know whether the hair is related to modern Native American gene types, said Lori Baker, doctoral student in anthropology who specializes in ancient DNA testing.

"There are five founding haplotypes among Native Americans. A haplotype is a type of DNA pattern," she said. "What I'm doing now is trying to determine if this hair has any of those (patterns)."

There a chance, however, the hair could have come from a lost civilization - off the DNA map. "It could be that we had other people in the Americas that weren't related to modern Native Americans at all," Baker said.

Because she has to essentially destroy the hair to extract its DNA, she has to be selective about how many - and which - DNA patterns she can test for. "What I'll do first is compare them to ones most likely - ancient Asian haplotypes," she said.

Scientists have long known Woodburn may hold treasures of the past. In the 1950s, a scientist by the name of E.J. Packard began to recognize the Mill Creek flood plain near Woodburn High School as a paleontological gold mine because of the buried network of ancient wetlands. The anaerobic bog has a neutral acidity level, which preserves otherwise perishable remains such as strands of human hair, Stenger said.

But the site remained untouched until 1987, when a utility trench uncovered scores of bones from animals that lived thousands of years ago - bones of sloth, mammoth, horse, bear, giant bison and dire wolf from thousands of years ago.

Scientists believe the Woodburn area may have among the best preserved ancient layers of soil in the Pacific Northwest.