JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – An Air Force team conducting an archaeological inventory in the west Utah desert has emerged with a discovery poised to completely reframe experts’ understanding of human tobacco use in North America.
The groundbreaking find – 12,300-year-old tobacco seeds located in an ancient hearth on the Utah Test and Training Range – suggests tobacco’s cultural roots date back nearly 9,000 years earlier than previously thought.
“As archaeologists, we are often working with minimal pieces in a much larger puzzle,” said Anya Kitterman, cultural resource manager at Utah’s Hill Air Force Base. “Finding these seeds gives us a huge new piece of the puzzle.”
Archaeologists have long known the UTTR is home to not only a variety of training and testing missions but also a wealth of cultural artifacts. A 2015 site survey in support of target and infrastructure construction revealed several clues that ultimately led to the tobacco seed discovery.
An interesting small black stain on the ground next to a spear point, stone tools and burned bird bones encouraged the team to dig a little deeper, said Jaynie Hirschi, the Air Force Civil Engineer Center cultural resources subject matter specialist and person who secured the funding and support for the contract team that uncovered the seeds. Tests indicated the stain was charcoal leading experts to suspect the area was once a firepit in an open-air camp used by highly mobile Native American hunter-gathers around the end of the Ice Age.
The archaeologists called the artifact-rich area where the tobacco seeds were eventually found the Wishbone Site, a name selected because the area was covered with bird bones.
“We don’t know exactly how people at the Wishbone Site used the tobacco, but we assume they may have chewed or smoked it by the fireside,” Hirschi said. “This discovery can help archaeologists understand influences behind the use and subsequent domestication of tobacco, as well as how tobacco became such an important plant to Native American peoples throughout the Americas.”
Wishbone Site archaeologists realized they would need help filling in gaps in the newly expanded North American tobacco story. Guided by the Air Force’s commitment to honoring government-to-government relationships, the installation and archaeological team reached out to sovereign Native American tribal representatives, with ties to the west Utah desert, for a better understanding of tobacco’s enduring significance.
“It is important to consider tribal input on archaeological findings; it’s an invaluable supplement to the scientific interpretations,” Hirschi said.
The team contacted Rupert Steele, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation. The chairman said the tobacco discovery is important to Indigenous people with ties to the UTTR land and underscored the significance of understanding the tribal story and preserving the “sacred and hallowed” ground.
“Desert tobacco has been used since time immemorial,” Steele said. “The tobacco has healing properties when it is used with other medicinal herbs and purifies the air when ceremonies are held.”
Tribal insights like those offered by Steele give Air Force resource specialists and land managers a broader understanding of people’s relationship to natural resources, said Kitterman. This greater understanding allows the Air Force team to be better stewards of the land needed for mission success while working to understand the world that existed thousands of years ago, she added.
“Our tribal partners help bring the people and their connection to the world around them back to life which leads to a much greater understanding of critical landscapes and sites,” Kitterman said.
The archaeology team’s search for more pieces to enhance understanding of the early Native American story is far from complete. Military land holdings like UTTR create a unique “laboratory” of relatively untouched areas that give archaeologists the opportunity to document sites that may have otherwise been destroyed by development or human curiosity, Hirschi said.
Another UTTR ancient hearth, this one named the Hello Site, is scheduled for excavation next summer.
“Air Force cultural resource managers work hard to understand the archaeological record, protect these important resources and facilitate the military mission,” Hirschi said. “We are hopeful the next excavation will not only further expand the area for future mission development but will also yield important information about early Native American prehistory.”