An array of stone tools discovered in northern Utah — including the largest instrument of its kind ever recorded — may change what we know about the ancient inhabitants of the Great Basin, archaeologists say.
Researchers exploring the desert flats west of Salt Lake City have uncovered more than a thousand tools, such as spear points, a type of rectangular implement that hasn’t been reported before, and objects that an archaeologist describes as “giant scrapers coming out of the ground … fresh as daisies.”
“We collected a thousand-some artifacts on this survey, and those are tools, not just [stone] flakes,” said Dr. Daron Duke, lead researcher of the team that made the finds. “There are tools lying out there.
“It’s a virtual blitzkrieg when you’re walking. I had to be careful about how people stopped and recorded things.”
The tools were found in 2012 on the grounds of the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range, where Duke’s firm, the Far Western Anthropological Research Group, was hired to conduct a survey before a section of the range was developed.
“I’ve driven around down there and have found a few things, and I was always interested to be there,” Duke said, who stresses that removing artifacts from federal lands is illegal.
“Then lo and behold we have a project right where I always want to be. So I was telling people, ‘Better keep your eyes peeled — I think we’re going to find some cool stuff.’
“But I couldn’t have predicted the scale at which we did.”
Based on ecological evidence and radiocarbon dates of organic matter in the area, laid down when this desert was a wetland, the oldest of the artifacts date to between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago, Duke said.
The most striking of the tools are 55 long, slender spear points and fragments, fashioned in a style known as Haskett — a tradition that’s associated with the Great Basin region, but rarely found.
One of the complete spear heads is the largest Haskett point yet found, measuring 22.6 centimeters (about 9 inches).
And another was found to contain a residue of elephant proteins, making it the first likely evidence of mammoth-hunting in the Great Basin.
[See the first Columbian mammoth hair recovered: “First Columbian Mammoth With Hair Discovered on California Farm“]
Together, these finds help clarify a picture that has remained hazy for archaeologists: the life and times of the Great Basin’s earliest inhabitants, who may have been contemporaries of the ancient and widespread Clovis culture.
“Haskett is very rare, anywhere,” said Duke. “Like Clovis, it relates to the earliest folks.
“They were probably moving around with a sort of condensed tool kit, and I guess you could say they were low visibility. There weren’t many people around, and they didn’t leave much of a record.
“But we just got lucky here.”
The archaeologists’ good fortune was probably the result of a bit of bad luck for ancient hunters, Duke pointed out.
“If you’re slinging these [spear points] at an elephant in a marsh, you’ll probably lose some of them,” he said.
“And that’s what I think we’re finding — things lost in action.”
Haskett points are thought to be part of the larger Western Stemmed tradition of tool-making, whose artifacts are found throughout the Great Basin.
“There’s no doubt that the people who made fluted [Clovis] points are not those people who made Haskett points,” Duke said.
“Even though they accomplish the same thing, they’re just completely different in their design.”
“There’s definitely no site that has an association with mammoths and the Western Stemmed tradition,” he said.
“So this residue evidence, if you want to consider it valid, is a smoking gun.”
[Read about a similar recent find: “10,000-Year-Old Stone Tool Site Discovered in Suburban Seattle“]
In addition to these many revelations, the patch of barren Air Force land has also turned up other compelling finds, such as large scrapers that seem to have eroded out of the ground only recently.
“There was one big scraper in particular that was actually sticking out of the ground,” Duke said.
“When I pulled it out, the top half had a light sheen from weathering, and the bottom half looked like it was flaked yesterday.”
The team also found a type of tool that doesn’t seem to have been recognized previously by archaeologists.
“There’s a class of artifacts that’s pretty much defined [by this locality] that I’ve never even heard of before,” Duke said.
His team found 19 extremely sharp, double-sided tools that they call rectangular bifaces, fashioned from broken Haskett stems, he said.
“Let’s say you break a point so you have one of these — you rework one end and rework the other, using a special flaking technique that creates an acute angle, so they’re very sharp.
“They appear to be used for some sort of intensive gouging of hard material, like bone or wood,” Duke added.
“These are artifacts that are not recognized in any of the other Paleoindian assemblages.”
These preliminary findings from the Utah Test and Training Range have shown enough potential that Duke has already secured permission and funding to excavate the site.
[Learn about an unusual find made nearby: “Utah Cave Full of Children’s Moccasins Sheds Light on Little-Known Ancient Culture“]
His aim, he says, is to uncover more new insights into the lifeways of the Great Basin’s earliest inhabitants, from what they hunted to when exactly they made this now-vanished wetland their home.
“I’m going to go out there and do everything I can to find some buried artifacts,” he said.
“It’d be nice if they’re Haskett points, but if I’m getting big scrapers that you scrape hides with and they come up with mammoth residue on them, well, we’re really getting somewhere.”
Duke reports his team’s findings in the journal PaleoAmerica.