Far Western Crew Unearths 12,300-Year-Old Hearth in Utah

Overview fish eye

Excavation overview of the Wishbone site, Utah. Photo Credit: Todd Cromar

Last summer, a crew of Far Western archaeologists working on the Hill Air Force Base, in compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, sunk a 50-x-50-cm test probe into Utah’s arid ground and turned up something you would not expect to find in the desert: waterfowl bone. These were burned within a Paleoindian hearth now radiocarbon dated to 12,300 calendar years ago.

After exposing the remains, Principal Investigator Dr. Daron Duke, with Senior Archaeologist Sarah Rice, and Senior Geoarchaeologist Dr. D.Craig Young quickly realized they were uncovering evidence of a marshland landscape in the middle of the modern desert and life-ways of North America’s earliest inhabitants never seen before. They had discovered the oldest open-air hearth ever found in the Great Basin and the first known Ice Age camp for hunting and cooking exclusively waterfowl.

Excerpt from Dr. Duke’s field notes July 11, 2016 “Amazing day. Mike L. excavated a pristine Haskett point one cmbs and about 1 meter from the feature…

Excerpt from Dr. Duke’s field notes July 11, 2016
“Amazing day. Mike L. excavated a pristine Haskett point one cmbs and about one meter from the feature…”

In July, meticulous excavation fully exposed the hearth and its surrounding area. The team found thousands more waterfowl bone fragments and several stone tools, including an in situ Haskett projectile point discovered just one centimeter beneath the ground surface and one meter from the hearth.

Soil samples of the hearth’s contents were collected in the field and brought back to the Far Western archaeobotanical laboratory for flotation processing and analysis. The archaeobotanical team recovered charred remains of willow wood, and seeds of bulrush, pond weed, and tobacco. The tobacco seeds are thought to be the oldest ever found in North America, nearly 9,000 years older than previous finds in New Mexico and Bolivia. Archaeobotany Director Dr. Eric Wohlgemuth further elaborates on the implications of these finds:

The charred remains are representative of the ancient environment and the bulrush and pond weed seeds could be waterfowl stomach contents. While willow wood charcoal was found in this context, willow is absent from the local environment today.

Flotation process

Flotation process to recover charred plant remains. Photo Credit: Angela Arpaia

 

A press release of the discovery soon hit the internet entitled, Archaeologists Discover Proof of Wetlands, Ancient Life on the Utah Test and Training Range.

The story was also picked up by Western Digs, an online science news site focusing in archaeology, anthropology, and paleontology of the American West and by Standard-Examiner, a local daily news source in Utah.

 

 

 

Archaeobotanical Analysis

Charred Plant Remains Identification

Far Western employs a team of archaeobotanists who specialize in the recovery and identification of charred plant remains from archaeological sites. Archaeobotanical findings are integrated into Far Western excavation reports to address project-specific and regional research issues. In conjunction with remains of terrestrial animals and birds, fish, and shellfish, plant remains can help investigate prehistoric and historic-era use of food resources, changes in use of native foods across time and space, and reconstructing past environments and their changing patterns as landscapes evolved. Far Western also studies variability in fuel use through wood charcoal identification, working with Paleoscapes Archaeobotanical Services Team of Bailey, Colorado.

Far Western’s archaeobotany lab features flotation equipment and personnel capable of processing hundreds of archaeological sediment samples. Archaeological plant remains are identified with the aid of a reference collection of more than 500 seed, fruit, root, and wood samples from California and Nevada. Far Western has three binocular microscopes with capacity ranging from 7–70 magnifications, including digital image capture capability, and a digital scale with resolution to 0.1 milligram for weighing wood charcoal, nutshell, and berry pit fragments. Archaeobotanical data are entered into a relational database with quantitative and qualitative data on more than 2,400 flotation samples from cismontane California and hundreds of samples from the Great Basin and Mojave Desert.

Far Western’s archaeobotanists have worked with plant remains in California and Nevada since 1981. Archaeobotany lab director Dr. Eric Wohlgemuth has more than 30 years of experience in the field, and has written more than 100 reports on the subject, including several peer-reviewed publications on California plant remains. His research interests in California archaeobotany involve the evolution of and geographical variation in hunter-gatherer intensive plant use in California. Assistant Archaeobotanist Angela Arpaia, BA, also has many years of experience in identifying plant remains from California and Nevada, and she has presented scholarly papers on ancient California plant use.

Starch Grain Analysis

Starch grain analysis is an archaeobotanical research method long-used internationally, but still growing as a method used in California archaeology. Far Western’s Justin Wisely specializes in extracting starch grain residue using a non-destructive process with distilled water and a sonic cleansing technique, that can be used both in the lab and in the field. Wisely extracts samples to analyze under a microscope, working within a magnification range of 100x-1000x, and identifications are made based on Far Western’s ethnographically informed reference collection. Starch grain investigations can be conducted on a variety of artifacts and features, such as portable ground stone, flaked-stone, or bedrock milling features.