Offices to open Utah's ancient Danger Cave for rare tour

AP News
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Posted: Oct 21, 2015 4:12 PM

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah state parks officials are preparing to host a rare tour of a remote west desert cave that holds evidence of human habitation dating back more than 11,000 years.

Danger Cave is considered an important archaeological site by experts around the country, said Justina Parsons-Bernstein, the state's heritage resources coordinator. It's gated and typically opened just once a year for tours. Officials added a second tour date this year because so many people were interested.

Located near Wendover, about 100 miles west of Salt Lake City, it's thought to have been used as a place to stay in the winter by many different groups of people over the millennia.

The cave was a welcome refuge because it stays relatively warm, about 50 degrees, all year long. There were once sources of fresh water and the cave was close to the ancient Lake Bonneville, a prehistoric body of water that has now receded and become the Great Salt Lake.

While the lake is now too salty for most aquatic life to survive, more than 9,000 years ago it had enough fresh water to provide ancient humans with a source of fish to eat, Parsons-Bernstein said.

As each group of people came through over the years, they left behind debris like plant material and ancient excrement that reveals clues about how they lived.

"One of the most interesting things about Danger Cave was people's diet kind of remained the same for about 9,000 years," she said. Findings include tiny pickleweed seeds from a succulent plant that grows on marshes.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, well-known University of Utah archaeologist Jesse Jennings made one of the first known uses of radio carbon dating when he excavated the cave. His work shed new light on the ancient people in the area known as the Great Basin, and he confirmed that humans had been in the area longer than previously thought.

Jennings also used a pioneering technique to excavate the site layer by layer rather than digging down. The careful, painstaking process that allowed him to create a timeline of the site's history and perverse items for future analysis. People are still studying the cave for evidence of things like climate change, Parsons-Bernstein said.

The artifacts have been well-preserved because Danger Cave is very dry, and over the years the debris piled up so high that the cave was called "hands and knees" because people had to crawl to get inside.

It was renamed Danger Cave after a large chunk of an overhanging rock formation nearly fell on a crew working with the archaeologist Elmer Smith. The boulder crashed on a spot where they'd just been working before breaking for lunch.

Space is limited because only 25 people can fit inside, but some of Danger Cave's important artifacts are on display at the Utah Museum of Natural History.

Tickets went on sale this week for a tour scheduled for Nov. 14. A high-clearance vehicle is required and the tour involves steep, rugged hiking.