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.
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.
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.