Wilson Butte Cave


What was found at Wilson Butte Cave?
Layers (Strata) of the Cave:
Studying artifacts from archaeological sites such as Wilson Butte Cave gives us a unique view into the daily lives of early Americans and the cultural history of southern Idaho. The following information summarizes the findings from the first and second excavations. See strata map.    
The earliest strata, Layers E through D (Late Pleistocene-10,000 years ago), suggest little to no evidence of human occupation. These layers contain bone fragments of small and large mammals (horse, camel, ground sloth), but no cultural artifacts or signs of fire were found. Human occupation during this period is a possibility because the animals could have come into the cave on their own or been carried in by early man, and fragmented bones hint towards hunting. However, evidence of frost found in layer D suggests that the cave may have been too cold and wet for human occupation. 
Layer C (10,000-6,000 years ago) begins to show evidence of hunting and short-term human occupation. This layer contained bone and charcoal fragments, stone tools, knives, projectile points, evidence of hearths, and a mano fragment (used for grinding plant foods).   
Layers B and A (the latest and most shallow layers) present the strongest evidence for periods of extended human occupation.   These layers contained projectile points, hearths, knives, and tools for hunting and grinding plant foods. 
The artifacts from Layer B were deposited over a span of 6,000 years. Humans probably lived in the cave between 4,000 and 2,500 years ago. The layer also represents the beginning of a drier environment.
Layer A (400-700 years ago) includes the widest variety of artifacts recovered from the cave and represents the period of latest human occupation. This layer is especially important because its artifacts represent a shift of cave usage from primarily survival and shelter, towards more recreation and decoration. It features evidence of gambling (bone dice, wood segments, sagebrush twine), leisure (tubular stone piece possibly used as smoking pipe), ornamentation (feather quill for headdress), trade (shell beads from the Pacific Coast) and clothing (hard-soled moccasin). Several skin-working tools and bone tools for grinding and polishing were uncovered, as well as items such as human trash, wood, vegetable fiber, and animal hide. 
Unique Discoveries from Strata A:
  • Moccasin: This three-piece moccasin is made of bison hide and has a separate rawhide bottom. This is important because it could be representative of the transition from the soft-bottomed to the hard-bottomed moccasin. 
  • Shell Beads: These shell beads (right) were possibly acquired through trade on the Pacific Coast and used for ornamentation and game pieces. 
  • Pottery: This round-bottomed, thick pottery was the only container found in the Wilson Butte Cave discovery. It has fingernail ornamentation on the lip and was probably used as a cooking container. This pottery is closely related to pottery found in western Utah and in the southeast Great Basin, which were identified as Shoshoni ware during the 1959 excavation. However, the artifacts in Stratum A, including the pottery, were identified in the 1989 excavation as being Great Salt Lake Gray Ware, associated the Fremont culture. Whether the pottery should be identified with the Fremont or Shoshone culture is still debated.

Next Page: Art and Entertainment in Daily Life


Photo Gallery (by strata)
WBC bone fragments
Bone fragments from Strata A.  

Bone awl from Strata A. 

shell pieces
Shell pieces from Strata A. 

All Wilson Butte Cave artifact photos courtesy of The Idaho Museum of Natural History.

Read about Wilson Butte Cave
The Archaeology of Wilson Butte
South-central Idaho by Ruth
and New Excavations at Wilson Butte Cave, South-central Idaho by Ruth Gruhn

Teacher Pages Education Link Stratigraphy and Crossdating

Occupation Period
Who Camped Here
What Was Found
Daily Life

Age Dating
Meet the Team


Out of the Ice Age
Idaho's Past Climate

The First People
A New Theory
Indian Tribes
Native Legends
Early Sites

and Gathering

Major Changes
Tools I
• Tools II
• Ice Caves
Gathering Plants
Food / Medicine


Teacher Pages

Resource Protection

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