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BYU
The North Creek Shelter, seen here from above, sits at the base of a sheer sandstone cliff. Mark Bodily and Janis Calleja worked on the project as master's students.

PROVO — A group of BYU students doing archaeology field work has peeled back the first layer of a treasure trove of secrets, unveiling ancient artifacts from people who lived in southern Utah 11,000 years ago.

The research done at the North Creek Shelter, located at the property now hosting Slot Canyons Inn at Escalante, will be published in the coming months in Kiva, a scientific journal in which BYU anthropologist Joel Janetski and his former students detail work done over five summers.

A pivotal finding points to a possible shift in gender roles and also to adaptations that may have been made because of climate changes in the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin regions.

The discovery of grinding stones at what is the oldest known site occupied by humans in the southern half of Utah indicates new "menu" items being offered at mealtime.

Janetski said the stones were used to grind sage, salt bush and grass seeds into flour.

"Yet at the same time we see these grinding stones coming in, there are a lot of deer bones onsite," he said.

Evidence of both food groups being utilized has led to head-scratching questions about what may have motivated the incorporation of grains into the group's diet.

"We can suppose that men continue to do what they were doing, and women apparently shift from what they were doing previously," which Janetski said was to gather foodstuffs such as berries and capture smaller animals.

Researchers do know that the climate was beginning to warm up and the earth was drying out about 9,000 to 10,000 years ago, precipitating changes in the animal species frequenting the area.

"We begin to see an increase in mountain sheep after 10,000 years ago, and they prefer more arid circumstances," he said. "The grouse, beaver and duck go away."

It's possible to speculate that as aspen and Douglas fir eventually were replaced with pinyon and juniper because of a drying environment, the beaver, ducks and other staple meat sources migrated to higher, cooler ground.

"It would require those who are gathering and capturing them to be willing to travel that far," he said.

The North Creek Shelter, sequestered because it is on private property, is on land occupied by a bed and breakfast that was run by Joette Rex and her late husband, Jeff Rex. The couple granted access to the researchers in an area that is steeped in rich history — having been home to those early inhabitants, as well as the Fremont and Anasazi cultures and later the southern Piute Indians. The Ritter family later used the site to run a grist mill, supplying early pioneers.

It took several years in the archaeological project to dig down through the site to reach a depth of 4 yards, and Janetski said only 15 percent of the site has been excavated. "One could go back and do quite a bit more."

Multiple funding sources contributed to the work, including the National Science Foundation; the Charles Redd Center at BYU; and grants from the Graduate and Professional Student Association, University of Nevada at Las Vegas.