Moccasins Found In Cave Give New Clues

View from Promontory cave

View from Promontory cave

A large cache of artifacts found in a cave on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, including hundreds of animal-skin moccasins, raise new questions regarding the little-known ancient culture that inhabited the region.

In a new paper published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Dr Jack Ives of the University of Alberta and his colleagues report on their findings from excavations carried out since 2010. Although the cave was first excavated in the 1930s, the significance of the initial discoveries was largely forgotten until recently, and new investigations have turned up “exceedingly abundant” deposits of artifacts, according to a report in Western Digs.

The Promontory Caves are located on Promontory point, along the Great Salt Lake in Utah. They were first excavated in 1930 and 1931 by Julian Steward from the University of Utah.  Promontory sites are most often identified  by the presence of a distinctive grayware ceramic tradition. The caves contain thousands of artifacts reflecting human occupation that suddenly appeared about 850 years ago, with the most intense period of the cave’s use ranging from 1250 to 1290 AD.

Recovered artifacts from the Promontory Caves include mittens, drum tops, bags, stone tools, ceramics, and baskets, among many others items. But it was the sheer number of animal-skin shoes found in the caves that captured the attention of archaeologists.

Twined mat found in cave

Twined mat found in cave

“Ranging from a small child’s size to an adult’s, the moccasins represent one of the largest and most diverse collection of objects made of leather in the Intermountain West,” wrote the University of Utah. “More than one-half of the moccasins have repair patches where the leather has worn through on the soles, and over 50 of them have shredded juniper bark insoles that still reflect the imprint of the foot. Some are fringed, others bear remnants of quillwork decoration.”

The research team analyzed a total of 207 pieces of footwear, both in the 1930s and the 2010s, and were able to determine that over 82 percent of the shoes were worn by children of ages 12 and under. While this is unlikely to reflect the exact demographics of the Promontory community, as many of the shoes were likely ‘cast offs’, Ives explained that they do provide valuable insights into its general proportions, in which children and adolescents were clearly a big part of the population. Ives suggests that such demographics are indicative of a thriving and growing population.


This is somewhat unexpected, as previous research has indicated that during the same period, other cultures in North America’s interior, such as the Ancestral Puebloans, were forced to relocate due to climatic changes and a shifting social landscape.

Ives suggests that this is because the Promontory culture were new arrivals, who had migrated from the far north and were very successful at assimilating and intermixing with Native American groups already living in the southwest.

The discovery of the moccasins supports this hypothesis.  The soles of the shoes were made from a single piece of bison leather, lined with fur, and sewn together at the heel. This matches the exact style typical of the Canadian Subarctic, Ives said.

“This period of flourishing amid otherwise hard times may have been a pivotal chapter in what Ives calls the “immense human story” of migration from the Canadian Subarctic, one that resulted in the culturally diverse Southwest that we know today,” reports Western Digs, and eventually gave rise to cultures that include the Apache and the Navajo.


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