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Have Researchers Found America’s First Casino?

Discoveries in caves on the north shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake are giving researchers a glimpse at what may be America’s first casino.
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Archaeological discoveries in caves on the north shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake are giving researchers a glimpse at what may be America’s first casino.

Excavations at a pair of caves near Promontory Point have uncovered hundreds of carved sticks, canes and pieces of bone believed to be gambling items used in the 13th century. Archaeologists estimate the caves hold as many as 17,000 such pieces, which likely were used as dice.

“That’s a great big number of dice,” said Jack Ives, professor of Northern Plains Archaeology at the University of Alberta, Canada. “But it’s not just the dice. We found bone pieces from hand games, a ball, a number of hoops, pieces that look like counters, stick games. It’s apparent that people were playing a lot of games.”

Ives, along with a team of archaeologists and researchers, began excavating the caves about five years ago. With him was Gabriel Yanicki, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alberta who is writing his dissertation on prehistoric gambling.

Details about early gambling come from ethnographic and historic accounts, Yanicki said. From the time colonists first encountered Native Americans, they observed games played by men, women and children. While children’s games were more recreational, adults often placed bets, Yanicki said.

“In some populations, the word for warfare is the same for gambling,” he said. “We have some accounts of extreme high-stakes gambling where, on the Plains, people lost everything so they wager their own scalps. In the Southwest, there are stories about people who wager themselves as slaves, or their wives and children as slaves.”

Courtesy John Ives/University of Alberta

The view from Cave 1, one of several caves near Utah’s Promontory Point, where archaeologists are finding evidence of prehistoric gambling.

In the Utah caves, archaeologists have found several varieties of dice—carved from cane, bone, wood or even beaver or porcupine teeth, Yanicki said. But the discovery has broader significance in terms of social interaction at the time.

“This is one community that knows all these different versions of dice games,” he said. “If you read the accounts, 70 or 80 percent of dice games were for women only. So what do we have here? Women who knew the games of other women. Women who are part of different communities.”

The variety of dice is part of what makes the Utah find atypical, said Ives, whose discoveries piggybacked on another archaeologist’s work from the 1930s. Julian Steward excavated the same two caves, known as Promontory 1 and 2, located at “the base of a badly faulted, folded and greatly metamorphosed cliff of limestone,” he wrote in 1937.

Fearful that looting would destroy the sites, Steward also excavated 10 smaller, less-occupied caves, and his work formed the basis of what researchers call the “Promontory Phase,” a period of 50 years during which as many as 200 people lived in the caves.

Ives’ work was much more sophisticated than that of his predecessor, but his discoveries supported many of Steward’s conclusions. Ives found that the caves likely were first occupied more than 10,000 years ago after the recession of the prehistoric Lake Bonneville, which once covered much of the eastern part of the Great Basin.

“People used these caves throughout time,” he said. Between 1240 and 1290 A.D., the two caves experienced a “really intense occupation that lasted for about two generations.”

But the items left behind are not typical of other Great Basin tribes, said Joel Janetski, a retired Brigham Young University anthropology professor who worked with Ives on the caves. Along with gambling paraphernalia that suggests whoever lived in the caves had vast social connections, archaeologists also found soft-soled moccasins, stone tools and mittens typical of indigenous people in Canada and the northwest.

“The way people make moccasins, that’s passed down by oral tradition,” Janetski said. “These conventions and traditions are less susceptible to change. The mittens are also unknown in the Great Basin, so we have a variety of things that lead one to conclude that these were people coming from a different place.”

Archaeologists retrieved 340 moccasins from a small section of one of the caves, but they project that as many as 3,500 moccasins exist. Ives believes the Promontory people were the ancestors of the Apache and Navajo, migrating to the Southwest over a period of about 500 years. Uprooted by a volcanic eruption in Canada in the year 846 A.D., these people probably traveled south, stopping for a generation or two in Utah, Ives said.

Courtesy John Ives/University of Alberta

Archaeologists digging in northern Utah caves have found hundreds of pairs of moccasins.

That version of history comes as no surprise to Bruce Starlight, a linguist and member of the Tsuu T’ina Nation in Canada. Starlight accompanied Ives on one of his trips to Utah.

“It is, of course, a Dene cave,” Starlight said, referring to the indigenous people of Canada who live in the arctic regions. “The Dene people have always been told to have our homes near mountains where there is significant shelter. We were always a wandering people, great in numbers, and one that, once we started telling stories, had close relationships with other tribes.”

Starlight said the moccasins found in the cave were Dene, as were petroglyphs found on the walls. He said oral history tells of great migrations southward and that the people would have followed the mountains and sought friendly associations with other people.

“You can tell that just by standing in the cave,” he said. “The feeling itself, in the cave, you can tell this was not a warlike people.”

While they lived in the caves, the Promontory people likely interacted with local tribes archaeologically known as the Fremont culture. That’s where the gambling came in, Yanicki said.

“The interactions of gambling led to long-term coalescences of groups,” he said. “The gambling is really a footnote to a much larger story. It’s a relationship-building mechanism.”

Courtesy John Ives/University of Alberta

Archaeologists recover a child’s moccasin from a cave near Utah’s Promontory Point, evidence that a large community of people lived here in the 13th century.

The dice, moccasins and other items are being preserved at the Natural History Museum of Utah. As the dig continues, archaeologists are partnering closely with American Indian and First Nations tribes that have conducted ceremonies inside the caves.

“For me, that part might be the most immensely moving,” Ives said. “There have been a lot of tears as First Nations and Native voices are heard in those caves, as we share moments to reflect on what all this means. It’s not one story, but many stories about an extraordinary relationship among people.”