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Utah’s Danger Cave Will Soon Open For a Rare Tour

The cave houses evidence of human habitation from over 11,000 years ago

A view of the opening to Danger Cave in 1976, when it was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places (F. Weiss, National Park Service)
smithsonian.com

Featuring the famed Bonneville Salt Flats and punctuated by mountains​, Utah's stark western desert doesn’t seem like an easy place to survive without modern conveniences. But nestled in this arid landscape is a cave with evidence of human habitation dating back to more than 11,000 years. And on November 14, you have a chance to visit it.

Danger Cave is among the oldest archeological sites in the Americas and it’s typically only open to the public one day per year—except this year. Interest was so high that officials decided to reopen the cave for a second day, reports Lindsay Whitehurst for the Associated Press. 

While the desert seems inhospitable today, the cave was once a prime spot. It stays relatively warm, around 50 degrees, all year long. And the shores of the ancient Lake Bonneville, the waters of which have since evaporated and left the Great Salt Lake, offered a nearby source of water and fish, Utah’s state heritage resources coordinator, Justina Parsons-Bernstein tells Whitehurst.

The cave’s dry air preserved debris in the cave until University of Utah archeologist Jesse D. Jennings' exploration in 1949, writes W. Paul Reeve for the History Blazer. During the excavations he led over the next six years, Jennings and his team found beetle wings, textiles, leather scraps, bone and wood tools and knives and even basket fragments.

Reeve writes:

The data collected from the cave led Jennings to startling new conclusions about a previously unknown, ancient Desert Culture in the western U.S. Evidence from Danger Cave suggested that this desert population was sparse, with small social units of extended families numbering no more than 25 to 30 people. The quest for food in cyclic wanderings required most of the energy of these kinship groups. They harvested pine nuts and small seeds, roasted their meats, and utilized caves and overhangs for shelter.

"One of the most interesting things about Danger Cave was people’s diet kind of remained the same for about 9,000 years," Parsons-Bernstein tells Whitehurst. Archeologists have deduced this fact from plant material and ancient excrement left in the cave. That millennia-enduring diet included pickleweed, a succulent that enjoys marshy areas. 

Only 25 people can fit inside the cramped cave at a time, but others can see some of the artifacts collected from the cave at the Utah Museum of Natural History. 

Also, don't be deterred by the ominous name: Danger Cave’s moniker comes from a large chunk of rock that nearly fell on one archeology crew. Since then, the entrance has been secured.

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