From the rim of Fort Rock one can see the rock formation where, in 1938, scientists found 10,000-year-old sandals in a cave. - Bill Miller

A really old pair of shoes

On a hot summer day, what could be more refreshing than a tall glass of 10,000-year-old iced tea?

With some tea leaves, an ice pick and just a squeeze of lemon, the young scientists at the University of Oregon's 1938 anthropology camp were serving up the world's oldest glass of iced tea.

Dr. Luther Cressman, head of anthropology at the university, had led his students to a cave, frozen in time and filled with solid water from an ancient lake.

Cressman and 10 students were on his annual search for relics from Oregon's earliest civilizations and had arrived in the Fort Rock Basin in late June.

He was following a trail that began with the discovery of some stone knives and tools not far from Bend in 1934.

It seemed unlikely that in this portion of the Central Oregon desert any human could have lived for any length of time, but Cressman was sure they had.

He explained how the basin was once filled with a large lake, its water lapping against islands of rock that now stood high above a sea of sand.

"The evidence of the vast lake," he said, "is cut imperishably on the mountainsides," rings of terraces and notches, each representing an ancient shoreline.

"About 10,000 years ago," he said, "the climate and living conditions must have been very favorable. Game was abundant in the form of large mammals, and to these must also be added waterfowl."

For hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, before the lake dried up, American Indians had lived and thrived here.

From his previous searches, Cressman knew these people often lived in caves they found in the rock walls, and that's where he began his search.

Not far from the larger formation known as Fort Rock, his team found a small cave, its entrance no larger than the door on a two-car garage. Inside, rocks from the ceiling had fallen onto the dusty floor and the stench of bat guano permeated the air.

The sun was white-hot on the alkali flats as the Cressman team dug exploratory trenches. A few feet down they came to a layer of volcanic ash and almost immediately below they found the first of more than 70 sandals.

"It was unlike any sandal we had ever found," said Cressman.

Hand-twisted and formed from sage brush and bark, the sandals would get the most publicity, but far deeper in the ash, Cressman found stone tools that proved these people had lived here for a long, long time.

Scientists laughed at Cressman's claim that the sandals might be 10,000 years old, but in 1950, Cressman was vindicated by a new scientific procedure. Radiocarbon dating determined the sandals were at least 9,000 years old — at the time, the earliest evidence that humans had lived on the continent.

"The wearer of these sandals," said Cressman, "did not look out on swirling dust devils or miles of alkali and sand flats, as we did that hot August day, but on a great lake with wavelets lapping against a beach below the cave."

Sounds like a great place for 10,000-year-old iced tea.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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