Utah Cave Full of Children’s Moccasins Sheds Light on Little-Known Ancient Culture


Archaeologists on the trail of a little-known ancient culture have found a cache of clues that may help unlock its secrets: a cave containing hundreds of children’s moccasins.

The cave, on the shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, was first excavated in the 1930s, but the artifacts found there — and the questions that they raised — were largely forgotten until recently.

Dr. Jack Ives of the University of Alberta and his colleagues resumed excavations in the cave in 2011 to better understand its occupants, some of whom Ives believes may have been part of one of the greatest human migrations in the continent’s history.

The site — part of a complex of natural shelters known as the Promontory Caves — contains “exceedingly abundant” artifacts numbering in the thousands, Ives said, marking a human occupation that began rather suddenly about 850 years ago.

This wealth of artifacts may go a long way in demystifying the distinctive, little-researched populations often referred to as the Promontory Culture.

“The beauty of the Promontory Culture is, probably 99 percent of the material culture that the people used was perishable,” Ives said in an interview.

“So, normally in the archaeological record, we only see the durable items — the pottery, the stone tools, the animal bones.

Promontory Cave Utah
The view from Promontory Cave 1 in Utah, where excavations in the 1930s and again in the 2010s turned up “exceedingly abundant” deposits of artifacts. (Courtesy Dr. Jack Ives)

“[But] we have, with the Promontory Culture, spectacularly, more material culture, so we can see all aspects of daily life, together with nuances likely to reflect different cultural identities.”

Large piles of butchered bison and elk bones, for example, suggest that the Promontory lifestyle was based, almost exclusively and quite successfully, on big-game hunting, while other groups around them were farming and foraging.

Scant ceramic sherds and basket fragments, meanwhile, bear strong signs of influence from other Great Basin cultures, including the Fremont.

But it was the staggering amount of footwear in the caves that captured the attention of archaeologists, past and present.

With soles made from a single piece of bison leather, lined with fur, and sewn together at the heel, the moccasins are made in a style typical of the Canadian Subarctic, Ives said, a fashion his team describes as being “decidedly out of place in the eastern Great Basin.” [Learn about another recent discovery from the same cave complex: “Hundreds of Dice, Game Pieces Found in Utah Cave Shed Light on Prehistoric Gambling“]

These moccasins and other cues have led some experts to theorize that the caves’ inhabitants were part of a great migration from the far north, a wave of people who moved into the Great Basin in the 12th and 13th centuries, and eventually gave rise to cultures that include the Apache and the Navajo.

To better understand the role that the Promontory may have played in this event, Ives and his colleagues used the moccasins to gauge the size and makeup of their population.

Two typical Promontory moccasins recovered in may 2013, with the bottom row showing their patched soles.
Two typical Promontory moccasins recovered in may 2013, with the bottom row showing their patched soles.

The team studied 207 pieces of footwear excavated from the cave, both in the 1930s and the 2010s, using the moccasins’ lengths to estimate the age and stature of their owners, based on known anatomical ratios.

The results showed that the vast majority of the moccasins — just over 82 percent — were worn by children of ages 12 and under.

“One of our [paper’s] reviewers said, this isn’t like a normal family ratio — this is more like an elementary school ratio,” Ives said in an interview.

Because the moccasins were likely “cast offs” that accumulated over several decades, these figures don’t reflect the exact demographics of the Promontory community, Ives explained, but they do provide valuable insights into its general proportions.

“These numerous moccasins are telling us about the structure of the population, not necessarily specific numbers,” he said.

“But you can see that children and subadults are a very big part of the population.”

Analysis of radiocarbon dates from the samples suggests that the most intense period of the cave’s use ranged over only one or two human generations — from about 1250 to 1290 CE.

This was a time, Ives points out, when other cultures in North America’s interior were undergoing dramatic changes, as a drying climate and shifting social landscapes forced entire communities to relocate, most notably among the Ancestral Puebloans. [Read about two new Puebloan villages found last summer: “Twin 1,300-Year-Old Villages Discovered in Arizona Sand Dunes“]

“It’s a tumultuous time period in which this is happening,” he said.

“We know there’s a significant environmental change going on.”

And yet, the large number of children in the Promontory population — along with other clues like the abundance of burned bones of large game — suggest that the Promontory people were “thriving,” Ives said.

“That very high proportion of kids would suggest that it’s a population that’s reproducing very well,” he said.

“We can’t get more specific than that, … but it’s suggesting that there are a lot [of children] in the society, and that implies minimally that they’re doing pretty well.

“Taking it a bit farther, they’re likely a growing population.”

A fragment of elaborate quill work recovered in May 2014, from the decorated vamp, or upper, of a moccasin. (Courtesy Jack Ives)

This period of flourishing amid otherwise hard times may have been a pivotal chapter in what Ives calls the “immense human story” of migration from the Canadian Subarctic, one that resulted in the culturally diverse Southwest that we know today. [Read about new insights into Apache history: “Long-Hidden Sites Discovered in the Southwest May Change Views of Ancient Migrations“]

Ives and his colleagues plan to conduct more research on other artifacts from the caves, like stone tools, nets, and bows, that bear important similarities to Subarctic cultures.

A recent, large-scale genetic study may also provide molecular evidence of the migrant’s trans-continental journey. [See sites that are changing how we think about human migration: “13 Ancient Villages Discovered in Wyoming Mountains May Redraw Map of Tribal Migrations“]

But for now, the materials found in Promontory Caves stand as rare examples of perishable goods that have survived to provide glimpses into the day-to-day life during this crucial period.

“Normally [these moccasins] would be gone, but here [in the cave] they’re present in abundance, and they’re signalling: We are typical of the north. That’s what they’re signalling.

“This is not mortality data,” he added. “Some research reaches conclusions from cemetery or burial settings.

“This is vitality data — these were living children and adults that the moccasins came from.”

Ives and his colleagues report their findings in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.


Billinger M, & Ives JW (2014). Inferring demographic structure with moccasin size data from the Promontory Caves, Utah. American journal of physical anthropology PMID: 25297837

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  1. Mark

    I feel like there’s another possibility that isn’t being considered in the theory presented in the article. Maybe there are more children’s moccasins present simply because children outgrow their footwear more than adults do. My own son typically goes through a few pairs a year because he’s outgrowing them, my own last until they wear out.

    1. Patrick

      True, but I feel that such materials would likely have been handed down to the next kid. Seems like in a world where producing objects is time consuming and resource consuming, they would reuse everything until it was worn to the point of being unusable.

  2. Dan

    I too believe their may be another explanation, having spent time with indigenous populations in South America and Africa it is possible that adults were NOT wearing moccasins as much or at all! When I used to run marathons and triathlons I could run on asphalt roads without shoes during training runs because my feet were so leather like!

  3. crmyn

    Back then adults probably weren’t very big….small hands and feet. Who’s to say?

  4. Jim O'Donnell

    I think trying to divine any information whatsoever on the population makeup of this culture by analyzing these shoes is pretty foolish. That cache of moccassins could have occured for a large number of reasons and says nothing about the makeup of the population. This is some pretty big over reach in my opinion.

  5. Richard White

    Maybe the “little” moccasins were indeed ceremonial and were left behind to signify that childhood was left behind in a sacred initiation to become adult. Very similar in concept to the multitude of “little hands” adorning a cave in Australia.

    1. Nate

      This is exactly what I think as well. I also liked the relation of the concept to the multitude of “little hands”

  6. marvin nioce

    where do I view the moccasins at?

  7. JIMMY G.

    I tend to agree with Richard whole heartedly. It was a sacred cave where initiations were held. The Moccasins were left behind with the cave “sacred Mother?” and the child walked forth as a Man. It reminds me of the words ” when I was a child I walked as a child ect…”

  8. Jack Ives

    I can answer a few of your questions….Blake did a wonderful job with this story, but the original American Journal of Physical Anthropology article did cover some of these topics. Although there are very many moccasins, this is not a cache of moccasins–a cache would imply that these were items that might have a future use. A very high proportion of the moccasins, (~72%) had whole or half sole repairs already, and all of them have heavy signs of wear. They were being discarded because they were worn out. This was actually common at camps, historically, but very few archaeological sites have this kind of preservation.

    We are often asked about growing children, but in that connection, it is important to remember that moccasins are not like modern footwear for durability. In the soft, snow conditions of the Subarctic winter, an adult would go through about four pairs of moccasins in a winter, but might actually go through a few pairs in one day if involved in heavy tracking or wet snow conditions. The rough terrain around the caves would mean that moccasins wore out quickly, more quickly than a child could outgrow a pair.

    If you read historical accounts for the Subarctic, Plains and Southwest, footwear (rather than barefeet) was absolutely essential, and there a number of accounts of the lengths Apacheand other people would go to ensure that they had moccasins above all else that might be needed. The turned up toe of the Apache moccasin was sometimes called a “cactus kicker,” for example, a real hazard in many places. There are also historical studies that show the biggest and healthiest people in the entire 19th century world were Plains equestrian people such as the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Living in villages, towns, or cities has a number of real health and social drawbacks. So from this and studies of prehistoric burial populations, we know that not everyone in the past was smaller, and quite the contrary.

    There may have been ceremonial activities in the caves, and there is rock art in one of them. Historically, young Apache children had a first moccasin ceremony at about two years of age. On the whole, however, there are really abundant traces of activities from all phases of daily life…hunting, hearths for cooking and warmth, hide preparation, making and replacing stone tools, fixing arrows, making bows–these sorts of things were by far the most common activities.

    If you want to see some of the moccasins first hand, there are several on display at the beautiful new Natural History Museum of Utah, on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City.

    -J. W. Ives

    1. Blake de Pastino


      Thanks so much for fielding these questions! It’s really great for members of our community to have researchers like you improve our understanding of the work you do.

  9. Nate

    I think that the little moccasins were ceremonial as well and they were left behind meaning that they didnt have a childhood which was difficult to kinda grow up in a way.

  10. H. Henrietta Stockel

    I am the author of a dozen non-fiction books on the history and culture of the Chiricahua Apaches and live among the descendants of the Promontory cave dwellers. I am currently researching the ancestral Apache population in the Yukon and Northwest Territories in an attempt to track back the people into antiquity. Every aspect of my research into the history and culture of the Chiricahua Apaches agrees with Jack Ives, e.g., that the moccasins were discarded because they were worn out, an activity that continues to occur today, albeit under different circumstances. The turned-up moccasin toe is distinctive and currently separates the Chiricahua Apaches from the other Apachean bands. Given the scope of the cave findings, it is easy to imagine that Utah cave dwellers were members of one of the groups that left the sub-arctic and migrated southward. If true, these migrants are the ancestors of the nearly 5000 Mescalero and Chiricahua Apaches living on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico.

  11. Gilmer Brush

    Has any one done a correlation between this new culture discovered in the Promontory caves and others in the area and the disappearance of the Coso people of California’s Mojave Desert. Hogup and Danger Caves have produced some unusual artifacts including moccasins of the type being found in the Promontory caves, several of the etched gaming reeds. Is there anything else that has been published detailing what has been found and anything that has determined where this new culture migrated from?