An Ice Age hunting camp currently being excavated west of Salt Lake City is the first archaeological find of its kind, for several reasons, researchers say.
The campsite, dated to more than 12,000 years old, includes the remnants of a fire hearth, a spear point, thousands of broken waterfowl bones, and the earliest tobacco seeds ever found in North America’s archaeological record.
Taken together, these artifacts show how surprisingly rich and intricate the lifeways were of the Great Basin’s earliest hunter-gatherers, said Dr. Daron Duke, lead investigator of the site, in an interview from the field.
Among the many reasons the ancient camp is so noteworthy, Duke said, is that it includes the oldest open-air hearth ever found in the Great Basin.
Willow wood charcoal recovered from the hearth has produced radiocarbon dates that average around 12,300 years old.
Although there is a “small handful” of older hearths that have been found in the region, Duke added, they’ve all been found in caves or rockshelters.
“While these [sites] are good for chronology, they are not ideal for representing people where [hunter-gatherers] primarily lived — valley bottom wetland habitats — or [for] providing tightly preserved associations of artifacts in and around the [hearth] feature.”
Perhaps more importantly, the site is also the first known Ice Age camp used expressly for hunting and cooking waterfowl.
“There is no devoted waterfowl cooking feature from the Paleoindian era in North America,” Duke said.
“There is evidence of Paleoindian people eating waterfowl, but usually alongside other animals and not in high counts, and not associated with a single feature.”
Duke first uncovered evidence of hunting last year, when a small test probe turned up a dense array of waterfowl bones that had been broken into pieces.
“Our current expanded dig appears to just contain more of it, but we have thousands of bone fragments now that we’ll go through to vet this whole idea,” Duke said.
He added that he and his colleagues are “confident enough” about the purpose of the site that they’ve already given it a fitting name: the Wishbone Site.
But perhaps the most significant discoveries at the site aren’t about animals; they’re about plants.
A small sample of material collected from the hearth last year produced four native tobacco seeds, Duke said.
His team has now collected a “great deal” more sediment from the hearth to be analyzed, with the expectation that it contains more seeds.
The four seeds they’ve already found had been charred, suggesting that they, or the plants that contained them, were burned — a sign that the hunters had actually used the tobacco, Duke said.
“The seeds are burned and definitely from within the hearth,” he said.
“There are a few alternative possibilities to human use that I want to address,” he added, “[such as that] the waterfowl ate the seeds, [or some other] natural happenstance, but these possibilities are quite remote.”
Assuming the seeds are evidence of tobacco use by Great Basin hunters 12,000 years ago, the implications could be far-ranging, Duke said.
“The earliest evidence for human tobacco use is between 2,500 and 2,000 years ago,” he said.
“Tobacco is a new world plant, so this would mean that in short order, people came to this hemisphere and began using tobacco.
“This is probably the most impactful find of the whole site,” Duke added.
“Even botanists will be interested in this date, regardless of human use.”
While excavations at the Wishbone Site continue, Duke and his colleagues are mulling what other insights they can unpack from this ancient camp that has already presented them with so many archaeological firsts.
In this regard, the team’s future research might focus on one more of the site’s objects of fascination: a 10-centimeter-long spear point.
The point is fashioned in the elongated style known as Haskett, the same style that Duke reported finding last year — in enormous numbers — on the same Air Force property. [Read about his big find last year: “Over 1,000 Ancient Stone Tools, Left by Great Basin Hunters, Found in Utah Desert”]
One of those spear points was found to still hold the residue of proteins consistent with elephants, suggesting it was used to hunt or butcher mammoths.
Finding the same kind of point at Wishbone, where only bird bones have been found, sheds new light on the diversity of the hunter-gatherers’ diet, Duke said, and on the extent to which their lives were dictated by the movement of the mammoths. [How long did mammoths really survive?: “Woolly Mammoths Survived on Alaska Island Until Just 5,600 Years Ago, New Study Shows“]
Time, and more study, will tell, he added.
“Perhaps similar [mammoth] residue will be found on this Haskett specimen,” Duke said.
“Mammoth hunting has previously only been associated with Clovis spear points.” [See a pre-Clovis tool site being excavated in Texas: “16,000-Year-Old Tools Discovered in Texas, Among the Oldest Found in the West“]
“The implication is that the same people outfitted to hunt late Pleistocene megafauna, such as mammoths, were eating waterfowl in the meantime,” Duke continued.
“This will have no shortage of archaeologists adjusting their theories.”