The people who dig up really, really, really old things have arrived.

More than 500 of them have come to Rohnert Park, archaeologists from around California who have gathered to present papers, review research and swap stories from Thursday through Sunday.

On their agenda: a heated national argument that will be highlighted by the event's keynote speech.

The talk will be given by an Oregon scientist whose research team uncovered in south-central Oregon evidence -- a tool and traces of human DNA in dung -- that some experts agree points to a human presence in North America dating back 14,207 years.

But there are others who are skeptical of the claim by Dennis Jenkins, director of the University of Oregon's Archaeological Field School, which added a few thousand years to the time humans are believed to have had a presence on the continent.

"It's a controversial topic," said archaeologist Tom Origer, whose Rohnert Park firm, Tom Origer & Associates, is analyzing obsidian from the Paisley Caves, the site of Jenkins' discovery.

"Twelve thousand years is quite believable, pushing it back 14,000-plus is stretching the envelope quite a bit," Origer said.

Jenkins speaks Saturday at the Doubletree Hotel, where many of the attendees are staying.

Origer is coordinating the local arrangements for the Society of California Archaeologists' annual meeting, which is being held for just the second time in Rohnert Park.

"This is the biggest event, truly all California archaeologists come to this event," said George McKale, official historian for the city of Sonoma.

"If you hang out at the bar for a beer, you'll hear some great stories," said McKale, who led a public archaeological dig in Sonoma to commemorate the city's 175th anniversary.

In Rohnert Park, a city preparing to celebrate its 50th birthday on Thursday, McKale will speak about the experience, which he says could be a model for other digs.

"One thing that I want to get across to the archaeologists is that the non-archaeologists, not only did they enjoy themselves but they gained a great appreciation for archaeology."

The discussion, which is open to the public, is one of dozens scheduled for the conference, which has packed Rohnert Park's hotels.

"This is economic development 101," said Councilman Amy Ahanotu. "You can't go wrong bringing in a convention. That's the area where we really need to pay attention to."

For more information, call 584-8300.

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