The land within Hill Air Force Base’s Utah Test and Training Range is about as barren as it gets.
For miles and miles, the seemingly lifeless terrain offers not much more than sagebrush and dust, which makes it ideal for dropping bombs and testing military equipment — exactly how the Air Force and other Department of Defense agencies use the 2,675-square-mile range today.
But a recent discovery from Hill’s cultural resource office and a team of archaeologists further confirms the territory wasn’t always a sterile testing ground but was once a rich delta, where indigenous people lived among flowing streams and marshland — a diverse ecosystem that supported life for thousands of years.
Earlier this month, Hill archaeologist and Cultural Resource Manager Anya Kitterman and a contracted archaeological team known as the Far Western Anthropological Research Group uncovered a hearth that contained tools, a spear tip or haskett point, charcoal, duck and goose bone fragments and tobacco seeds.
The hearth, which Kitterman describes as more or less a fire pit for cooking, is estimated to be 12,300 years old.
Daron Duke, Far Western senior archaeologist, said the age of the hearth and the items found within it serve as a record of the Great Basin’s earliest inhabitants.
“They really are the first occupants of the Great Basin that we can demonstrate,” Duke told Hill’s Todd Cromar, who documented the dig for the base.
Layers of organic marsh and decomposed plant life called “black mats” were also found in the area. The mats, which can be tested for age through a process called radiocarbon dating, contained plant, shell and fish species.
Kitterman said the area was an oasis and permanent home for people and animals during the conclusion of the recession of Lake Bonneville.
“People were actively utilizing this area, not just passing through” she said. “They were hitting the tail-end of the Lake Bonneville period, and this (area) was what was left.”
The site was discovered about a year ago, Kitterman said, after previous surveys and a probability model indicated the area had good potential for significant archaeological resources. She said archaeologists are actively surveying 3,000 to 5,000 acres of the range every year.
Much of the work is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, she said, but when excursions yield significant finds, tedium turns to excitement.
“When you come across a find like that, it’s obviously very exciting,” Kitterman said. “You’re getting a real picture of the history of this land. It’s an unbelievable feeling. We’ve been looking for something major like this for years.”
Kitterman said the items found in the dig will be curated through the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City. The team will also consult with Native American tribes known to have inhabited the area.
Barbara Fisher, chief of Hill’s Environmental Public Affairs office, said the base regularly consults with 21 tribes about findings and archaeological work performed at the UTTR.
Patty Timbimboo-Madsen, Cultural and Natural Resources manager for the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, said the Shoshones and other native American tribes are interested in the findings and glad work is being done to preserve such history.
“It’s another piece of evidence that says we did exist, we did live here, and we had an impact,” she said. “It’s a testament to our people and the role we had. That’s important.”