Tomorrow's commuter trains and a railside development could rob Utahns of a full understanding of their state's ancient past if the Legislature allows construction on the site of a buried village in Draper, archaeologists say.
It's a site where a preliminary dig in 2007 found tantalizing evidence that archaic American Indians up to 3,000 years ago were farming and cooking corn -- hundreds of years before modern scientists previously believed farming had reached the Great Basin.
"It could reshape our understanding of the development of agriculture in the West," said Matthew Seddon, a consulting archaeologist and member of the Utah Professional Archaeological Council.
Developer Whitewater VII Holdings has preliminary city approval to build a transit-oriented village around a planned FrontRunner rail station on private land farther north, though the Utah Transit Authority prefers a swap for state land that includes the buried ancient village.
UTA attorney Bruce Jones said the state land near 13500 South has two key advantages: It would put a park-and-ride lot closer to Bangerter Highway and it would move the development away from homeowners who worry about the bustle.
The Utah House Political Subdivisions Committee on Monday approved a bill that would authorize but not require the swap. HB179 would be necessary before any trade because previous legislation preserved the 250 acres in question as open space managed by the Department of Natural Resources.
State Archaeologist Kevin Jones oversaw the 2007 excavation that uncovered evidence of corn use. While he has not taken a position on the bill, he agreed it's a significant discovery. Preliminary lab work indicates the presence of corn pollen, he said, though experts are holding off on publishing the results until they're doubly sure.
"If you're going to change the cultural history by 500 or 1,000 years, you want to get it right," he said.
Archaeologists until now agreed that Utah's ancient inhabitants did not learn corn farming from people to the south until the Fremont Indians occupied the northern Colorado plateau around 2,000 years ago, Jones said.
The partial excavation, which unearthed a tiny fraction of the 250 acres of state land, also found numerous cooking pits and thousands of cracked rocks that archaeologists believe fractured when the villagers heated and plunked them in water for cooking food in baskets.
The UTA attorney said there would be time to excavate and catalog the site before FrontRunner is completed between Salt Lake City and Provo in the next three years.
The trade might involve only 100 acres of the site, he said.
UTA requires 10 of that, and the rest is for private development.
Seddon said the council of archaeologists would prefer to leave the remnants in place for future observation.
"We're trading away the homes of the first farmers of the Salt Lake Valley with nothing to show for it," he said.
House committee members told Seddon they believe UTA and DNR will protect the artifacts. They voted 10-1 over the objection of Rep. Janice Fisher, D-West Valley City.