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PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - Archaeologists will revisit a cave in remote central Oregon, where the world's oldest-known footwear was unearthed decades ago, in the hope of shedding new light on the spread of early human settlement through the Americas.
University of Oregon officials said on Tuesday that the work, set to begin next week at Fort Rock Cave, will also seek to vindicate radiocarbon dating results from the 1960s that were widely dismissed at the time.
"There's a tantalizing possibility that people were here thousands of years earlier than we thought," said Tom Connolly, anthropologist and project leader.
The site, about 200 miles (480 km) southeast of Portland, first came to archaeologists' attention in the 1930s after dozens of ancient woven fiber sandals were discovered at what is thought to have been a winter home used by one or more families.
Connolly said radiocarbon dating tests carried out on a hearth found at the cave in 1966 suggested it had been occupied as far back as 15,000 years ago.
But he said those results were downplayed at the time because that would have dated human settlement in the area earlier than academics had believed was possible
Since then, Connolly said, the cave has lain unexamined.
Now, however, most archaeologists think humans spread through the Americas at least 1,000 years earlier than was once the established wisdom, thanks in part to the discovery of ancient feces at Oregon's nearby Paisley Caves.
But Connolly said the evidence remains thin, and he and a team of about half a dozen researchers hope to add to it during their planned week-long expedition to Fort Rock Cave.
They will map out a grid of the site, he said, and then begin excavations.
"There were so few people on the landscape at that time, it's challenging to find little bits and pieces of evidence," he said. "Each of those little bits and pieces matters an awful lot."
Reporting by Courtney Sherwood; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler