In the dead-flat desert of northwestern Utah, archaeologists have uncovered a scene from a distant, and more verdant, time.
Just a few centimeters below the sun-baked surface, researchers have discovered a campsite used by prehistoric hunter-gatherers 12,300 years ago — when Utah’s West Desert was lush wetland.
Artifacts found at the site include the charred remains of an ancient hearth, a finely crafted spear point, and, most surprising, a collection of tobacco seeds — likely the earliest evidence of tobacco use ever found in North America.
“What makes this interesting is there’s no direct evidence of anybody using tobacco past 3,000 years ago,” said Dr. Daron Duke, senior archaeologist with the Nevada-based Far Western Anthropological Research Group, in a press statement.
“And this was 12,000-plus years ago!”
Duke and his colleagues made the find in the remote reaches of U.S. Air Force’s Utah Test and Training Range, a proving grounds in the salt flats west of Salt Lake City.
The Air Force contracted with Duke’s firm in 2015 to survey thousands of acres of the range that had never been explored before by archaeologists. After finding a scattering of artifacts near the surface, the team returned this summer to excavate.
“In the first week, we have collected over 60 items around the feature,” said Sarah Rice, Far Western senior archaeologist, referring to the hearth.
“In fact, something like this has never been found in North America before.”
In addition to the spear tip and seeds, the researchers have found many stone flakes left over from the tool-making process, as well as the broken bones of ducks and geese — trash left behind by hungry Ice Age hunters.
“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,” said D. Craig Young, a senior geoarchaeologist with Far Western.
“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.”
The spear point that the team discovered is 8 to 10 centimeters long, and seems to be over-engineered for hunting birds, Young said.
“One wouldn’t think that was being used to capture ducks,” Young observed.
“It could have been used to process the water fowl, but those large points tend to be associated with hunting of large game.”
Indeed, the campsite is not far from another striking find that Duke and his colleagues made a few years ago.
Elsewhere on the same range in 2015, Duke reported a staggering array of more than 1,000 large stone points, some of which were found to contain traces of elephant residue, providing the first evidence of mammoth hunting in the Great Basin. [Learn more about the find, including the largest point of its kind ever discovered: “Over 1,000 Ancient Stone Tools, Left by Great Basin Hunters, Found in Utah Desert“]
Those tools, like the newly found campsite, date to a time when the Ice Age-climate made the West Desert almost unrecognizable to modern eyes, Duke said.
“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.”
In fact, a dark layer of sediment is still visible in the area, where marshy organic matter had been compressed into a sort of mat, which is still rich with the remains of plants, fowl, and fish.
It was this layer, referred to as a “black mat,” that provided the radiocarbon date of 12,300 years.
The people who lived and worked in this fecund environment were some of the first known inhabitants of the Great Basin, Duke said.
“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. …
“We do know that by 13,000 years ago … we get evidence of people in this area and the Great Basin.” [Discover 20 more sites like this, recently found in Nevada: “Nearly 20 Stone-Tool Sites, Dating Back Up To 12,000 Years, Discovered In Nevada“]
“The people then seemed to be pretty transitory. They might have seen megafauna and possibly were hunting mammoths and giant forms of bison.”
But as the climate changed at the end of the last Ice Age, so too, did the lifeways of the people who once used this campsite.
“These people had a unique landscape for thousands of years,” Duke added.
“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.”
Exactly where these ancient hunters moved to, and who they became, remains a mystery.
And so does the provenance of those tobacco seeds.
“It’s a new world plant, not a plant from the other side of the world, so obviously this raises a lot of questions,” Duke said. [Learn more about ancient tobacco use: “1,200-Year-Old Pouches Found in Arizona Cave Contain Prehistoric ‘Chewing Tobacco,’ Study Finds“]
More research in places like this can yield new, important signs of life from the distant, hard-to-imagine past, the researchers noted.
As Anya Kitterman, an Air Force archaeologist, said in the statement, “This site, and other similar sites nearby … will help us gain further insight into the prehistoric fabric that makes up this unique landscape.”