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26 May 2015
Hundreds of gaming pieces found in Utah cave

A cave on the shore of Utah's Great Salt Lake is giving archaeologists a rare glimpse into prehistoric gambling. Cave 1 has proven to hold a profusion of artefacts, most of which date to a span of just 20 to 40 years in the late 13th century CE, belonging to members of an obscure culture known as the Promontory. Researchers believe the Promontory people migrated from the Canadian Subarctic to the American Southwest.
     Heaps of animal remains and children's footwear unearthed in the cave suggest this group was thriving in the late 1200s, when cultures like the nearby Fremont, who lived just a few kilometres away, had given up farming and were struggling to forage during a time of drought.
     "The numbers and diversity of gaming artefacts that we see in the Promontory record are unparalleled in western North America," said Dr John Ives, an archaeologist who has been researching the cave complex for years.
     Most of the game pieces are dice, made from split pieces of cane, one side decorated with cut or burned lines, the other side plain. Many were discovered near the entrance of the cave, around a large central hearth.
     According to Alberta doctoral student Gabriel Yanicki, who is collaborating on the research, dice games were typically played only by women, for small stakes, or to allocate tasks like cooking.
     Based on historical accounts, the pieces may have been used in a game in which three to eight dice were thrown to score points based on how many of the marked sides fell face-up, won by the first player to reach a predetermined score. While men usually didn't take part in dice games themselves, they often bet on the results.
     The greatest significance of Cave 1's game pieces may not just be in how they were used, but in where they came from. The artefacts include gambling tools from nearly every part of the ancient American West.
     The cane dice are similar to those found throughout much of the Southwest, but not elsewhere in the Great Basin. Researchers also discovered a die made from a beaver tooth wrapped in sinew, of a type used by the Klamath culture on the Oregon coast, 1400 kilometres to the west. "A spiral-incised stick looks similar to objects used in a guessing game played by a number of peoples in northern British Columbia," Yanicki says. A small sinew-netted hoop and feathered dart are indicative of gambling traditions from the Great Plains to the Colorado Plateau.
     In a previous study of 200 moccasins found in the cave, Ives determined that the majority were in a style typical of the Canadian Subarctic. This and other clues suggest that the Promontory had only recently migrated to the Great Basin before settling in the cave, eventually giving rise to cultures that include the Apache and the Navajo.

Edited from Western Digs (18 May 2015)

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