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Researchers Dig for Clues of Early Life at INL Site

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho – Before Idaho National Laboratory existed, before the vast fields of potatoes, the key feature of eastern Idaho's economy was the Big Southern Butte. For thousands of years, archaeologists say, nomadic tribes made regular trips to the butte to mine its deep deposits of obsidian — a black volcanic glass that forms sharp edges when broken. The tribesmen took full advantage of this phenomenon and shaped obsidian into all manner of tools and weapons.

Through time, eastern Idaho's abundance of obsidian grew famous, and the tribes began to trade tools and weapons formed from it as something of a currency. Evidence of their activity is littered about the INL site in the form of broken obsidian flakes and, sometimes, fully formed spear and arrow tips.

But the question remains: Just how old are the oldest artifacts that have been found in the area?

For the past two summers, an INL archaeologist and a graduate student have been digging — literally — for answers to that question. Their excavation site — a tiered hole on the bank of the Lost River that measures about 8 feet at its deepest — is the first archaeological dig on the INL site born purely of a push to research the land's history.

For years, archaeologists have drooled over the promise of what lies just beneath the surface of the INL site. It's not just the fact that millions of obsidian chunks are strewn across the landscape. Or that, thousands of years ago, the climate of eastern Idah