Recently, a team of archaeologists working on the Utah Test and Training Range under the direction of the Hill Air Force Base cultural resource program discovered a 12,300-year-old hearth — an archaeological “feature” — and artifacts that tell the story of North America’s earliest inhabitants and of a very different landscape from that of today.
Traveling through Utah’s West Desert and the Great Basin region today, the desolate landscapes stretch for miles in every direction, making it difficult to imagine lush, thriving wetlands. However, this discovery further confirms that the region was once a vast expanse of rivers, streams, and marshes, inhabited by many varieties of plants and animals. Additionally, the discovery proves that people have had a long presence in the area.
In compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the Air Force for years has worked very closely with the Utah State Historic Preservation Office to explore, discover and preserve historical and cultural artifacts on the UTTR.
Anya Kitterman, Hill AFB archaeologist and cultural resource manager, said that the preservation efforts are accomplished by proactively doing archaeological surveys in areas not previously visited.
“We work to focus these surveys on areas which have a higher potential for archaeological resources,” she said. “This is based on previous surveys, a probability model developed to identify those areas with the most likelihood of archaeological resources based on past environments, and previous research.”
She continued, “Hill AFB contracted Far Western (Far Western Anthropological Research Group) for the 2015 summer field survey season to survey several thousand acres which were chosen based on the above criteria, and the hearth site was one of many sites where numerous artifacts were found. It is, however, by far the most significant.”
Sarah Rice, Far Western senior archaeologist, talked about the hearth site on July 13, while continuing the excavation here.
“In the first week, we have collected over 60 items around the feature,” she said. “We found tools, charcoal, pieces of duck and goose bones, tooling flakes … very unique. In fact, something like this has never been found in North America before!”
The unique circumstances and variables surrounding this recent discovery took thousands of years to come together. Erosion by wind and water uncovered the artifacts after more than 12,000 years. Then, trained archaeologists, combining years of local research, focused on this exact area looking for precisely this kind of feature and artifacts.
According to D. Craig Young, Far Western senior geoarchaeologist, the current excavation’s location was once a wetland where people and animals gathered.
“The old river bed in Utah’s West Desert is unique because it was a highly productive area for a confined period of time, from the recession of Lake Bonneville up until 8,500 years ago, approximately,” he said. “There is a window of time that this area was an oasis marshland, and people came to use this patch as the rest of this part of the Great Basin was drying out.”
During their research, Young and his teammates used geologic features to reconstruct events and explain patterns over thousands of years.
“Left behind in the Paleo delta (an ancient river delta) are layers of organic marsh and decomposed plant life that was buried — we call them black mats,” Young said. “These mats are now a layer of soil in this area, exposed in spots due to erosion. Researchers all along this delta are interested in black mats because they can be radiocarbon dated. They contain plant species, shell species, and fish species, which gives us a window into that environment at that time.”
Daron Duke, Far Western senior archaeologist and lead for the current project, who has worked with the Air Force for 15 years, was excited about the recently discovered hearth and the story it tells.
“The reason we want to find features is because we can directly date them,” he said. “This infers the artifacts are of a certain age. Otherwise it is not clear.”
The significance of the find helped the archaeologists determine that people occupied the region many thousands of years ago.
“Then there are questions about the significance of these people,” Duke said. “They really are the first occupants of the Great Basin that we can demonstrate. If we went from the earliest accepted date of man in the Americas, approximately 13,400 years ago, people seemed to have dispersed all across the continent within a short, 500-year timespan.”
According to Duke, the first few people inhabiting this area moved around a lot.
“We do know that by the time of 13,000 years ago, 400 years after people are in North America, we get evidence of people in this area and the Great Basin,” he said. “The people then seemed to be pretty transitory. They might have seen megafauna (large animals) and possibly were hunting mammoths and giant forms of bison.”
Environmentally, the Great Basin has been mostly dry for about 9,000 or 10,000 years, according to Duke. Until the dry period arrived, changing geologic conditions may have led to people inhabiting the area.
“The Great Basin is now arid, but at that time it was maybe 10 to 15 degrees cooler on average, a much cooler environment,” he said. “This is why there were rivers, lakes, and marshy wetland ecosystems. These people had a unique landscape for thousands of years. Toward the end of this period, for people who had the run of North America, things were drying up and this could have been one of the last places they decided to make use of.”
Other significant items were found around the hearth.
“We now knew we had something unusual and important, which was evidence of people!” said Duke. “The main thing of significance is we found tobacco seeds. What makes this interesting is there’s no direct evidence of anybody using tobacco past 3,000 years ago, and this was 12,000-plus years ago! It’s also a new world plant, not a plant from the other side of the world, so obviously this raises a lot of questions.”
Duke continued, “Now that we have dug a bigger grid around the fire pit, we know that the people were throwing food refuse around and dropping some down on the ground. We then discovered a buried point, or big spear tip, right next to the feature.”
Young expanded on the spear tip’s significance.
“Here in this location, we see possibly a more generalized diet of several species of ducks, which is not surprising [for people] working and living in a wetland,” he said. “Also of significance is that these people were carrying their big game tool kits, as evidenced by the big point found right next to the hearth. It’s about 8 to 10 centimeters long and one wouldn’t think that was being used to capture ducks. It could have been used to process the water fowl, but those large points tend to be associated with hunting of large game.”
Kitterman said Hill AFB will continue to focus on identifying and protecting resources here.
“We hope to undertake further data recovery at additional sites that are at risk from natural processes, such as erosion, in the near future,” she said. “This site, and other similar sites nearby, may change the way we approach cultural resource protection and management in the south range and will help us gain further insight into the prehistoric fabric that makes up this unique landscape.