W. Paul Reeve
History Blazer, June 1995
Some 11,000 years ago members of the Great Basin Desert Culture left behind fascinating evidence of their existence at a site known as Danger Cave, less than two miles east of Wendover, Utah. Renowned University of Utah archaeologist Jesse D. Jennings first explored the cave in 1949 and over the next several years directed extensive excavations there. He published his findings in 1957 in Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology, No. 14, and simultaneously in University of Utah Anthropological Papers, No. 27. His report broke new ground by suggesting that there had been a very ancient, uniform way of life blanketing the dry steppes of the western United States for several thousand years. Jennings’s Danger Cave findings aroused both criticism and support, but after the initial fervor abated they gained widespread acceptance and became one of many hallmarks in his long and illustrious career.
Jennings was born July 7, 1909, in Oklahoma City to Daniel Wellman and Grace Cruce Jennings. Raised in financially difficult times, he grew accustomed to making do. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from a small Baptist college in New Mexico, he arrived at the University of Chicago in 1929 and worked his way through school as a construction worker, busboy, hospital orderly, campus policeman, and archaeological field worker. Upon receiving his doctoral degree in anthropology he worked at several sites in the Southeast and in Guatemala. Then in 1948 he accepted a position as a professor of anthropology at the University of Utah and, with his wife Jane Chase, moved to Salt Lake City.
The anthropology department at the U. was just newly created and with the addition of Jennings had a total faculty of four. He brought enthusiasm and ingenuity to his new position, and in his first year planned and conducted a self-sufficient field school. He selected two caves on the west side of the Great Salt Lake and in the summer of 1949 established a camp just east of Wendover. Jennings and his students excavated Jukebox and Raven caves, which proved only moderately successful in terms of research. They also took cursory samples at Danger Cave, which, in subsequent years, produced a trove of archeological clues to Utah’s past.
Despite the challenging working conditions at the cave, which included blinding and choking dust, Jennings and his crew persevered until they finished excavating in 1955. The extremely dry cave had created an ideal storage condition that preserved a variety of fascinating artifacts from beetle wings to textiles and human coprolites. They also found leather scraps, pieces of string, nets of twine, coarse fabric, basket fragments, and bone and wood tools such as knives, weapons, and millstones. Amazingly, the excavation also yielded identifiable fragments of 68 plant species that still grow today within ten miles of the cave as well as the bones of many species of animals. In an effort to date the variety of inhabitants that had used the cave over its expansive history Jennings sent samples from every major stratum to Chicago for Carbon-14 dating. The age of the oldest material—over 11,000 years—surprised even Jennings and exceeded in age all but a few of the excavated sites in North America.
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. According to Jennings, life in this primitive culture was “directly and continuously focused on sheer survival.” “In such situations,” he wrote, “there is little leisure, and almost no certainty about the morrow. No long-term building projects, no complicated rituals, no extensive amassing of personal property nor any long range plans can be undertaken in such circumstances.” Despite its uncertainty the Desert Culture persisted for thousands of years and eventually became the basis for other early Utah cultures such as that of the Fremont.
In addition to his Danger Cave research, Jennings continued his work at the U. where he gained a reputation as a challenging and popular professor. He also conducted other extensive research in the Great Basin, Southwest, and Pacific. One of his notable accomplishments has become a popular site to visit for Utah school children. He lobbied persistently for a number of years and eventually won support to build—virtually from scratch—the award-winning Utah Museum of Natural History. He has received a plethora of teaching and research awards as well as written a number of books and articles, including the college text Prehistory of North America, now in its third edition. He retired as a Distinguished Professor from the U. in 1980. Dr. Jennings died in 1997.
See Jesse D. Jennings, Danger Cave, University of Utah Anthropological Papers, No. 27 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1957); Jesse D. Jennings, Accidental Archaeologist: Memoirs of Jesse D. Jennings (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994)