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UTSA finds evidence of possible ancient earth ovens at caverns

Natural Bridge Caverns CFO Joye Wuest and David Yelacic, the director of the UTSA Center for Archaeologal Research, examine burned rocks that could have been used in ancient earth ovens in the area.JPG
Winter D. Prosapio
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Natural Bridge Caverns
Natural Bridge Caverns CFO Joye Wuest and David Yelacic, the director of the UTSA Center for Archaeological Research, examine burned rocks that could have been used in ancient earth ovens in the area.

UTSA archaeologists have found evidence of possible earth ovens used by prehistoric people on what is now the grounds of Natural Bridge Caverns, north of San Antonio.

David Yelacic, director of UTSA's Center for Archaeological Research, said they found burned rock that could have lined earth ovens in the ground to cook food.

He said they are still working to date their find, but artifacts found nearby on the grounds of the caverns in 2003 by UTSA may offer a clue.

"In the cave entrance, the sinkhole, there's artifacts going back 10,000 years plus," he explained.

Yelacic said the people were likely semi-nomadic, and their eating habits were diverse and opportunistic -- basically whatever edibles they came across were potentially dinner.

He said they would dig a hole in the ground, set wood in the hole and light it on fire. Next, rocks would be dropped into the fire to be heated. Food would be added into and covered by the heated rocks after the fire died down. Then dirt was used to cover the pit, creating an oven.

Yelacic said that form of cooking was used for certain items, but meat was not likely one of them.

"The types of foods that they are cooking like that are the roots or the tubers or the wild onions. Things that need long periods of cooking at relatively low temperatures to make it digestible or palatable," he said.

Meat was most likely roasted on a above ground fire, Yelacic said.

Joye Wuest, the family-operated cavern's chief financial officer, pitched in to help with the dig. She said an archaeological study and the discovery of artifacts by UTSA in 2003 helped the caverns win national recognition.

"We were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2004," she said.

The artifacts found in 2003 included a stone tip of a light throwing spear, a partial drill to drill holes in wood, bone, or other materials, Montell dart points, and Nolan dart points, according to a news release from UTSA.

Wuest said the cave was uncovered in 1960, and the family decided to form a corporation and open it to the public in 1962.

She said artifacts found over time were preserved by the family, but they determined they needed some expert help and reached out to UTSA.

Wuest said UTSA has been a good partner to work with as the cavern caters to tourists. Their current dig is just a few feet off a public sidewalk that will soon be expanded.

"It is very important to me to be able to make a good decision when they come to me and say can we put this over there and I can say no, absolutely not, you can't go past this line," she said with a laugh.

Yelacic in turn called the Wuest family "incredible stewards" of the resources on their property.

The current dig runs two weeks and is nearing its end. Any significant artifacts found will go on public display at the cavern, he said.

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Brian Kirkpatrick can be reached at brian@tpr.org and on Twitter at @TPRBrian