Nearly a hundred skeletons buried in a cave in southeast Utah offer grisly evidence that ancient Americans waged war on each other as much as 2,000 years ago, according to new research.
Dozens of bodies, dating from the first century CE, bear clear signs of hand-to-hand combat: skulls crushed as if by cudgels; limbs broken at the time of death; and, most damning, weapons still lodged in the back, breast and pelvic bones of some victims — including stone points, bone awls, and knives made of obsidian glass.
Signs of violence were evident in 58 of the approximately 90 bodies found in the cave. Most of the victims were men, but at least 16 women were also found among the dead, as well as nearly 20 children, some as young as three months old.
Since the discovery of this prehistoric charnel house — known to archaeologists as Cave 7 — more than a hundred years ago, there has been little doubt about the violence visited upon those interred there.
But anthropologists continue to debate what that violence meant — specifically, whether Cave 7 was simply a burial ground for casualties of individual conflicts and small skirmishes over centuries, or whether it was more like a war cemetery, where victims were put to rest after a single, catastrophic conflict between cultures.
The site was first excavated in 1893 by Richard Wetherill — the self-taught archaeologist who also led digs at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon — and it was a historic discovery in many regards. Judging by the artifacts and other clues found around them, the mutilated bodies were the first evidence of a new people: a pre-ceramic culture that predated the Ancestral Pueblo. From the handiwork they left behind, Wetherill called them “Basket People,” later to be known as Basketmakers, a culture that thrived in the Southwest from about 500 BCE until 750 CE or later.
But the significance of this find was almost overshadowed by the circumstances surrounding the Basketmakers’ deaths. The carnage found in Cave 7 could only be explained, Wetherill concluded, by the “sudden and violent destruction of a community by battle or massacre.”
And this interpretation held for more than a century, until 2012, when radiocarbon dating of some of the bones from the cave showed that the burials actually spanned many centuries — from the first century CE to the early 300s — suggesting that the dead represented several, smaller conflicts over time.
Now, a new analysis of the Cave 7 remains finds that, while the dates do cover a range, the victims of violence in particular appear to date from the same period, intimating that they’re evidence of a “single-event mass killing.”
In a recent study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Dr. Phil Geib of the University of New Mexico and Utah archaeologist Winston Hurst obtained new radiocarbon dates for some of the remains, but they also relied heavily on a traditional standard of archaeology: context.
Drawing on Wetherill’s original field notes, as well as photographs and other documentation, they determined the positions of the bodies within layers of sediment, and also in relation to each other, to assess which were buried together.
In doing this, they identified four sets of remains that were clearly buried in tandem — each from slightly different parts of the cave, some bearing obvious signs of violence, others not — to serve as samples for the new radiocarbon dating.
The first group consisted of eight adult men, their bodies flexed and their faces turned toward the mouth of the cave, all but one of whom exhibited signs of what the scientists call “extreme cranial trauma.”
The second featured the body of a young woman with three children positioned on her breast, ranging in age from one to three years, none of which showed any skeletal damage.
The third included seven skeletons seemingly stacked in a haphazard pile, four of them males that had clearly suffered yet more “cephalic brutalization.”
The fourth burial was that of four adult women, one of whom may have been injured at the time of death, and another young child.
Analysis of collagen, a protein, extracted from 11 bone samples among these four groups showed that three of the groups dated to around the same time — from about 1,915 to 1,950 years ago, within the dating process’s margins of error.
Only the remains in the second group, the undamaged female skeleton with the three children, were slightly more recent, dating to about 1,880 years ago.
The remains of houses, bits of charcoal, and rarely seen types of pottery are tantalizing new clues in one of the more persistent mysteries of Southwestern history: What happened to the culture known as the Hohokam?
Best known for their hulking adobe complexes, like the ruins now called Casa Grande, the Hohokam were one of the Southwest’s most complex and influential societies, constructing irrigation canals that turned parts of the Sonoran Desert into farmland, and trading with distant Mesoamerican cultures whose influence can still be seen in Hohokam ball courts.
By the late 1300s, the Hohokam were perhaps the most populous cultural group in the Southwest. But around this time, something triggered their precipitous decline.
While the cause — or, more likely, series of causes — remains poorly understood, Dr. Deni Seymour says she has turned up an important clue: Despite what most scientists have believed for decades, the Hohokam were not alone.
Years of research in southeastern Arizona, the heart of the Hohokam homeland, have turned up what Seymour calls “abundant evidence” that another tribal group — the O’odham, whose members still call Arizona home today — lived in the region perhaps as early as the 1100s.
This flies in the face of scientific convention, which has held that the region was essentially vacant between the fall of the Hohokam in the late 1300s and the arrival of the first Spanish missionaries in the mid-1500s.
“Some of the big questions scholars have been asking for a very long time are: What happened to the Hohokam? Is there a relationship between the Hohokam and the O’odham? In other words, did the Hohokam become the O’odham?” said Seymour, an archaeologist with the Jornada Research Institute in New Mexico, and a specialist in early O’odham and Apache cultures.
“Until now we have not had enough information on the O’odham — historically, the Upper Pima — to address this question from an archaeological standpoint. Now we do.”
In a paper recently published in the Old Pueblo Archaeology Bulletin, Seymour describes her investigations of sites inhabited by a people known as the Sobaípuri, a branch of the O’odham whose descendants are now part of the Tohono O’odham.
Their traces are found mostly along the San Pedro, Santa Cruz, and Gila rivers in southeastern Arizona, where the Sobaípuri irrigated crops and constructed settlements in rows of elongated houses.
Some of the sites had been excavated before, in the 1950s and ’60s, revealing evidence of the Sobaípuri’s signature oblong building style and plainware pottery. But, using ethnographic accounts, historical records, and the dating technology available at the time, most experts estimated that the Sobaípuri lived in Arizona no earlier than the 1540s, around the time that the Spanish arrived.
For her research, however, Seymour turned to new methods. One of them, called thermoluminescence, can pinpoint the last time a material was heated to a certain temperature; another, optically stimulated luminescence, can isolate when particles like quartz or feldspar were last exposed to light.
Together these technologies can help date objects like cooking pits, identify when pottery was fired, and determine how long some sediments have been buried.
Using this suite of techniques and radiocarbon dating, Seymour said, the more samples she looked at, the more “unusual and unexpected” the results became.
LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. – Archaeologists have uncovered 10,000-year-old Native American artifacts near a popular state-owned beach in the southern Adirondacks, making it among the earliest known occupied sites in New York state, officials announced Thursday.
The archaeological dig conducted ahead of a $3 million improvement project at Million Dollar Beach on Lake George has turned up thousands arrowheads, pieces of stone tools and other artifacts dating back to about 8,000 B.C., said Christina Rieth, the state's head archaeologist.
"We certainly don't find these kinds of sites every day," said Rieth, who's based at the New York State Museum in Albany. She and museum Director Mark Schaming held a news conference at the excavation site 55 miles north of Albany to announce the findings, which also included artifacts from the French and Indian War (1755-63).
The state is repaving the parking lot and access road at the beach, located on the southern end of the 32-mile-long lake. In late August, a team of archaeologists from the museum began digging just off the access road in a tree-shaded picnic area located a few hundred feet from the beach. In prehistoric times, the area would have been the shoreline, Rieth said.
The Native Americans who left behind projectile points and evidence of stone tool-making likely didn't linger long at the site or any others, she said.
"It would be kind of a transit group, people who would have come here year after year for fishing or other types of activities around the lake," Rieth said. "It's unlikely they settled here."
The find is significant even for Lake George, a popular summertime tourist village where history is literally underfoot. It hasn't been uncommon over the years for 18th century military artifacts or even human skeletons to be dug up during routine public works projects or hotel expansions.
The latest discoveries occurred adjacent to the site of a French and Indian War battle in 1755, while nearby stands the full-scale replica of the fort the British built that year, only to be captured and destroyed by the French in 1757.
The southern end of the lake where the dig is being conducted would have been a popular hunting and fishing spot for the nomadic people of the Archaic Period, said John Hart, the museum's director of research and collections.
"It was an area people would have come back to get those resources," Hart said.
Schaming said some of the artifacts will eventually be displayed at the state museum.
Archaeologists uncover secrets of high-altitude Wyoming villages where Native Americans would go in summer to hunt and collect pine nuts for winter.
To an outsider, the Wind River Range of Wyoming does not seem a hospitable place. Glaciers dot the peaks, and snow can fall even in August. But in the thin air above 10,000 feet, archaeologists have discovered a host of sky-high prehistoric villages, including one that may be the oldest mountain settlement in North America.
Researchers will report 13 new Wind River villages in an upcoming issue of The Journal of Archaeological Science, bringing the total number to 19. Such high-altitude settlements are extremely rare in North America, and scientists plan to study plant remains from the villages that may help them understand the prehistoric peoples who moved to the roof of the world.
"To find honest-to-God villages up there … was astounding," says Colorado State University archaeologist Richard Adams, whose team identified the first one. "They're on the crest of the continent. Who'd have thunk it? Nobody expected this."
The sheer number of sites is "shocking," says archaeologist David Hurst Thomas of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who is not involved in the Wind River work. "And this (research) is … expensive, it's hard, and it's a killer on the knees."
The Winds, as the mountains are known, are not an easy place to collect data. Researchers have trekked across glaciers and scaled cliffs in their search for new villages, contending with "everything from flash flooding to forest fires to bear encounters," says Matthew Stirn, a University of Sheffield-Britain graduate student who has helped locate many villages. "It's as close to extreme archaeology as you can get."
The job has gotten easier, thanks to a formula Stirn developed to predict where villages are likely to be, based on factors such as altitude and the presence of whitebark pine, a tree that produces large quantities of fatty nuts. Stirn's formula guided the team to the newly reported villages, which contained the vestiges of ancient lodges and everyday objects such as grinding stones.
The artifacts in the new villages are much like those at the largest Winds village, discovered several years before the most recent batch. Christened "High Rise," it sprawls down a mountainside so steep that Adams compares it to an intermediate ski run. At 26 acres, it's the biggest alpine village in North America and was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Amid the ruins of the 60-odd lodges at the site lie sewing tools,stone arrowheads and body paint. A piece of pottery made from local clay and a fragment of bowl made from local stone mean that women were probably crafting objects up at High Rise, Adams says.
All those remnants — many also found at other villages — suggest these weren't just short-term hunting camps. Instead they were high-altitude resorts where entire families lived for months at a time, hunting and collecting pine nuts for the winter. The villages are awash in stone food-grinding tools, which could have been used to extract nuts from the pine cones. People probably wouldn't have left those valuable tools at the high villages unless they planned to return.
"There seems to be a predictable draw that brings people back to the same place year after year," says archaeologist Laura Scheiber of Indiana University, who excavates other high-altitude sites. "Children are learning from their parents and grandparents, 'This is the place we go at this time of year.'"
The age of the oldest villages is unknown, but it's clear that some were built at least 2,700 years ago, and High Rise may be 4,000 years old, Adams says. That would make it the oldest alpine village in North America. There's evidence that people lived at High Rise on and off for at least 2,000 years running. The Sheepeater Shoshone, the Native American people who built the Winds villages, used them until they were confined to reservations.
Researchers puzzle over why prehistoric people headed for the hills in the first place. Perhaps changes in climate made food scarcer in the lowlands, or perhaps immigrants drove people off their traditional territory. Nor do scientists know whether the Wind River people came up with the idea of high-mountain settlements on their own or heard about it from others. But Wind River has helped put to rest the old stereotype that prehistoric peoples stuck to the lowlands.
The range "was the place to be in the summer. … It is just exhilarating to be there, and the living was easier than in the basin," Adams says. "I think they were up there having fun."