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What the locals ate 10,000 years ago

If you had a dinner invitation in Utah’s Escalante Valley almost 10,000 years ago, you would have come just in time to try a new menu item: mush cooked from the flour of milled sage brush seeds.

After five summers of meticulous excavation, Brigham Young University archaeologists are beginning to publish what they’ve learned from the “North Creek Shelter.” It’s the oldest known site occupied by humans in the southern half of Utah and one of only three such archaeological sites state-wide that date so far back in time.

BYU anthropologist Joel Janetski led a group of students that earned a National Science Foundation grant to “get to the bottom” of a site occupied on and off for the past 11,000 years, according to multiple radiocarbon estimates.

“The student excavators worked morning till night in their bare feet,” Janetski said. “They knew it was really important and took their shoes off to avoid contaminating the old dirt with the new.”

In the upcoming issue of the journal Kiva, Janetski and his former students describe the stone tools used to grind sage, salt bush and grass seeds into flour. Because those seeds are so tiny, a single serving would have required quite a bit of seed gathering. But that doesn’t mean whoever inhabited North Creek Shelter had no other choice.

Prior to the appearance of grinding stones, the menu contained duck, beaver and turkey. Sheep became more common later on. And deer was a staple at all levels of the dig.

“Ten thousand years ago, there was a change in the technology with grinding stones appearing for the first time,” Janetski said. “People started to use these tools to process small seeds into flour.”

BYU graduates David Yoder, Mark Bodily and Brad Newbold are also authors on the new study. Though they have moved on in their careers, the group members continue to work with Janetski to investigate the animal bones, projectile points and signs of climate change influencing human diet.

The North Creek Shelter is located at the base of a sheer sandstone cliff on the same property as the Slot Canyons Inn, which now contains an exhibit about the researchers’ findings. Janetski notes the generous support received from the property owners, Joette Rex and her late husband Jeff Rex.

BYU geology professor Tom Morris and his student Tanner Hicks have also contributed their expertise to the project.

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Radiocarbon Dating
  8/31/2010 7:12 AM by Jaime

Over the past 60 years, radiocarbon dating has been refined and improved. Remember, this is a dating technique, not a technology that becomes antiquated with time. We've been able to use the scientific method to independently test the reliability of the results that radiocarbon dating offers, and we've made improvements to the technique as our understanding and technologies improve. Given the right circumstances, radiocarbon dating can be one of the most reliable and accurate dating techniques available to modern archaeologists.

Just some reasoning
  8/29/2010 12:26 PM by Devin

The 4000 B.C. idea i believe came from back dating in the bible starting with first historical dates of events we know of in the bible and then working off of birth and ages of people that lived in the bible and scholars have arrived at Adam and Eve starting at 4000 B.C.

Also, with carbon dating, just because it's old doesn't mean it still isn't efficient. The science is based on solid principles that have made dating living things much easier.

Just curious
  8/28/2010 2:55 PM by Bryan

Who said that Adam and Eve started having children circa 4000 B.C.? I've always heard that but am not sure of the source.

Maybe carbon dating doesn't work...I mean, it's been around since 1949, that's 60 years of using a dating method that we claim can measure tens of thousands of years.

10,000 years ago?
  8/28/2010 9:39 AM by Ryan

I was under the impression that Adam and Eve started having children circa 4000 B.C.

How can this site be older than that?

Please enlighten me.

Escalante Home today
  8/26/2010 4:36 PM by Susan

If you come to the Escalante home today, I promise we will feed you better! ;D

Story Highlights

  • BYU archaeologists find a Utah site occupied by humans 11,000 years ago
  • The researchers documented a variety of dishes the people dined on back then
  • Grinding stones for milling small seeds appeared 10,000 years ago

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The North Creek Shelter, seen here from above, sits at the base of a sheer sandstone cliff. Mark Bodily and Janis Calleja (pictured) worked on the project as master's students. Calleja is now seeking a Ph.D. at Harvard and Bodily works for the U.S. Forest Service.

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Holly Raymond also worked on the excavation as a master's student. She now works at a private archaeology firm.

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Bradley Newbold hands a bag up to Sara Hill. Newbold finished a master's degree at BYU and is now seeking a Ph.D. at Washington State University. Hill is a grad student at UNLV.

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“They knew it was really important and took their shoes off to avoid contaminating the old dirt with the new.”
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