Western Digs’ Top 5 Archaeology Stories of 2013

oldest chocolate

The topics range from butchered human remains to video games. The stories they  tell come from as long ago as 10,500 years, and as recently as the 1980s.

Of the dozens of articles we’ve posted this year about peer-reviewed archaeological research from around the American West, a select few rose to the very top of the popular imagination.

Their tales have some things in common — mainly geography — but what stands out is their shared ability to portray vividly how scientific endeavor can help us understand the past, whether it’s relatively recent history or the earliest evidence of human life in the West.

If you’ve read them all already, then thanks for making this list possible*. And if it’s all new to you, then welcome to the community of Western Digs.

In either case, let this be the starting point for your journey back through 2013 — and beyond!

5. Grisly Mass Grave in Utah Cave Is Evidence of ‘Prehistoric Warfare,’ Study Says

Cave 7 Utah
Cave 7 in southeastern Utah as it appears today

In September, we detailed new insights into one of the most macabre sites in the Southwest — Cave 7, a rockshelter in southeastern Utah where a hundred years ago archaeologists discovered dozens of skeletons bearing clear signs of hand-to-hand combat: crushed skulls; broken limbs; and remains riddled with stone points, bone awls, and knives made of obsidian glass.

But anthropologists have debated what that violence meant: Was Cave 7 a burial ground for the casualties of individual conflicts over centuries, or was it was more like a war cemetery, where victims were put to rest after a single, catastrophic conflict between cultures?

Our fifth most popular story of the year lays out the latest findings, and what the bones found there may have to tell us.

4. Long-Hidden Sites Discovered in the Southwest May Change Views of Ancient Migrations

apache mountain spirit dancer
Rock art found near an ancestral Apache platform cache appeared to depict four masks of Mountain Spirit Dancers, like those used in some modern Apache religious ceremonies.

A type of site never before described by archaeologists headlined our fourth most popular story.

The sites, discovered in the southern mountains of Arizona and New Mexico, were remote Apache encampments, called platform caches, which eluded archaeologists for centuries.

What’s more, some of the sites and the artifacts found there — like fragments of a ceremonial headdress, a ritual staff or “wand,” and pictographs of Apache mountain spirit masks — date back more than 200 years before ancestral Apaches were thought to have migrated into the southwest from the Great Plains.

Read more about this discovery and how it may change conventional thinking about the ancient migrations that shaped the Southwest.

3. New Mexico’s ‘Atari Dump,’ a Midden of Video Games, to Be Excavated

In the spring, Western Digs got national attention when we reported that the city of Alamogordo, New Mexico, authorized a Canadian production company to excavate of one of its old landfills.

But this wasn’t just a municipal dump — it was a site where the famous video game manufacturer Atari reportedly buried hundreds of tons of broken and outdated merchandise in 1983.

No one knows exactly what’s down there, but excavations will begin soon.

Learn more about the ‘Atari Dump’ and what it may (and may not) hold.

2. Earliest Use of Chocolate in America Discovered, Suggesting Ancient Immigrants

oldest chocolateReaders responded in great numbers to our exclusive report in June about new research into some ancient pottery from southern Utah that was found to contain traces of cacao, also known as cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate.

At 1,200 years old, it was the earliest known evidence of the substance yet found in the United States.

But to the experts who made the find, what’s even more important was the unusual pottery that it was found in, and what it tells us about the ancient influences of Mesoamerica.

Read on to learn more about the archaeology of chocolate.

1. Oldest Human Footprints in North America Identified

Fossil human footprints
These two human prints, originally discovered in 1961, have been dated to be about 10,550 years old. (Photo courtesy Arturo Gonzalez)

Hundreds of thousands of readers gave the top slot to our exclusive story about the continent’s most lasting impression: the oldest known human footprints in North America.

If you haven’t read it yet, you can find out now where they were found, how old they are, and what their identification tells us about the people who made them.

But whether you’re a new reader or a return visitor, I’d like to offer a big, very sincere thank you to everyone who has passed through Western Digs this past year, whether you just read one story, or you became a member of our growing community.

I read the latest research, interview scientists and write up their findings all in my spare time, because I’m passionate about exploring science, history, and the American West, and I’m glad there are others out there who are as fascinated by it as I am.

If you have any questions, comments or ideas of what you’d like WD to cover, let me know in the contact form, or in the comments below. And don’t forget to join Western Digs on Facebook, follow @WesternDigs on Twitter, and follow us on Tumblr and Google Plus!

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  1. Starr Shamek

    I seen this page on a friend of mine on facebook and I think this is an awesome page. Thank you for having this.