‘Nothing left to steal’: Utah’s Danger Cave looted by thieves, who stole artifacts dating back 11,000 years

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) In this 2015 file photo, hikers peer into an excavated site of Danger Cave near Wendover.

A cave with evidence of some of the earliest humans in Utah was looted last week by thieves — who, state park officials say, tore security fixtures from the walls and stole all the artifacts inside.

Ron Rood, contracted to work as the site’s steward, said he went to Danger Cave on Saturday to set up for a tour. The spot, which sits in a remote area of the West Desert near Wendover, has no signs directing visitors to its entrance and is closed to tourists who aren’t accompanied by trained archaeologists.

When Rood got to the entrance, he noticed it had been breached, according to a news release about the vandalism. Inside, the installed lighting had been ripped from the walls, the safety equipment was missing and the few remaining relics were gone. That includes tools and rare fragments of baskets woven more than 11,300 years ago that are kept there for educational use.

“If anyone saw anything suspicious in that area — headlights late at night or people with hammers and shovels — please help us,” said Justina Parsons-Bernstein, heritage resources manager for Utah State Parks.

Those with information are asked to call 801-889-7209. The state believes the thieves broke in between 4 p.m. Tuesday and 9 a.m. Saturday. “It’s such a short time span,” Parsons-Bernstein added. “And they probably did this at night.”

Danger Cave is a state park heritage site that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. Only a few tours are held there every year.

There are no signs pointing to its location and few books mention it. That’s because the space was barred shut to prevent damage. Though people have pried those metal bars open before to sneak in, Parsons-Bernstein said, that’s not how the thieves got in this time. She declined to give further information, noting she doesn’t want others to try the same thing.

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Tour guide Justina Parsons-Bernstein explains various features of Danger Cave near Wendover, on Saturday, November 14, 2015.

“But the reason that we have that gate on is because people come in and do stuff like this,” she added. “It’s an American treasure.”

The cave is considered one of the most important archaeological sites in North America.

The couple of artifacts that were inside for tours are from indigenous inhabitants who lived there when the waters of Lake Bonneville first receded to expose the space. They’re kept in a small box and include a piece of leather with stitching, projectile points and “a piece of plant matter that humans chewed to keep their mouths moist.”

Most, however, were removed in early excavations and are now stored at the Natural History Museum of Utah, Parsons-Bernstein said. “There’s nothing left to steal.”

In the neighboring Jukebox Cave, which contains wall paintings but was not looted, there’s a concrete floor added before World War II by airmen living in Wendover who used the space to host dance parties. The two are often toured together.

Danger Cave was originally called Hands and Knees Cave when it was first visited by researchers because that’s how people had to enter it. When a large rock tumbled off the cliff face and narrowly missed a group of archaeologists, it was renamed to Danger Cave.

“What is particularly ironic, it’s Archaeological Heritage Month in Utah,” Parsons-Bernstein said. “This happens right when we’re trying to talk to people about what these pieces are worth.”