IDAHO FALLS – A few miles west of Idaho Falls lie three caves and an archaeological legacy that Suzann Henrikson can’t let go.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management archaeologist has dedicated years of her life to convincing others that digging in the caves for clues about the Snake River Plain’s earliest inhabitants is worth the money.
“It’s too important to ignore,” she said. “We need to investigate human history because we keep making the same mistakes over and over again.”
Henrikson and her peers say the Wasden caves, named for the first white owner of the land, make up the oldest archaeological site in Idaho. Excavators have found bones from all types of animals in the caves, as small as mice and large as a mammoth, as well as prehistoric spear and arrow points and fragments of pottery.
Henrikson suspects Native American tribes – the ancestors of today’s Shoshone-Bannock Tribes – sometimes used the caves to trap and kill large game such as bison and mammoths as many as 11,000 years ago. As the theory goes, hunters would drive herds of bison from the area north of the caves up a slope and into the gaping holes formed in collapsed lava tubes.
The holes weren’t deep enough to kill many of the animals, so they didn’t qualify as the kind of buffalo jumps other plains tribes used to harvest game. But they did trap large numbers of the bison in a confined area where the hunters could easily dispatch them.
Henrikson said bison kills at the Wasden site could date back as far as 9,000 years. If those kills were the result of intentional drives by hunters, they’d mark the oldest such site in North America, she said.
Of course, that’s just theory at this point. No serious excavation has taken place at the Wasden site since the 1970s, and archaeologists need to examine the caves more thoroughly to confirm – or debunk – their theories. To dig, they need money – about $10,000 per cubic yard, Henrikson said.
She said excavators will need about $100,000 just to stabilize the Wasden site against erosion. Henrikson would love nothing more than to develop the dig, to finally unlock its mysteries. But she knows that’s an uphill battle in a time when federal, state and local governments are slashing every budget item they can find.
Henrikson said she’s trying to rebuild momentum for developing the Wasden dig, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. She said her most recent push is to encourage the site’s listing as a national landmark, a designation that would free up some money to restart excavation.
She knows it won’t be easy to attract enough money for a full excavation of the site, but she doesn’t plan on giving up.
“What’s amazing about out here is I could work until I’m 90 and I would never run out of stuff to research,” she said of the Snake River Plain. “There’s just too much out here.”