Squirt Cave (45WW25) is a Late Prehistoric site whose most significant aspect is the great number of perishable items which provide invaluable information on raw materials and finished products used for transport, storage, and the production of hunting, fishing, and food processing rarely preserved in the archaeological record. These perishable items complement the wide range of bone, stone, and wood tools.
The results of Endacott’s (1992) study provide support for the contention that grass was the preferred material for cordage and basketry on the Plateau (Mallory 1966). Tule, which is known as an important matting material ethnographically, was present in sufficient quantity for species identification. Important examples of basket starting points and selvage, rarely found, were also present. The fired and incised clay items represent the only examples from the lower Snake River. Finally, the radiocarbon dates are an important addition to the small number from storage pits at other lower Snake River sites such as Windust Cave, Burr Cave, and Marmes Rockshelter.
Squirt Cave (45WW25) is located on the lower Snake River about 26 km upstream from Lower Monumental Dam [map p. 2] near the confluence of the Snake and Palouse Rivers. The area is characterized by steep canyons cut through Miocene basalt flows, with river bars resulting from catastrophic flooding during the Missoula floods, the most recent of which occurred approximately 13,000 years ago (Mullineaux et al. 1978). The benches and foothills of the area are covered with soils derived from basalt and wind-blown loess as well as the characteristic steppe and shrub vegetation of eastern Washington. The dominant plants along the river and on the adjacent uplands are perennial grasses such as bluebunch wheatgrass (Agropyron spicatum), bluegrass (Poa secunda), and Idaho Fescue (Festuca idahoensis), with lesser amounts of shrubs such as rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus). Other flora include sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), prickly pear (Opuntia polycantha), mustard (Brassica spp.) and Indian wild rye (Elymus spp.). Cottonwood (Populus hasata) and willow (Salix spp.) are found along the river and stream banks. The most common large game animals found pre-contact include elk (Cervus canadensis), deer (Odocoilus spp.), and pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana). Remains of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) are also found in addition to small, fur-bearing mammals, birds, fish, and shellfish (Endacott 1992).
The Palus people, Sahaptin speakers, inhabited the Palouse River basin and the northern half of the Snake River Canyon during the contact period and located most of their villages along the Snake River. Their first direct contact with Europeans was by Lewis and Clark in 1805. The material culture is similar to that of the surrounding groups, both Sahaptin speakers and the interior Salish speakers of the Columbia Plateau, with whom the Palus probably shared aspects of their heritage. These groups included the Cayuse and Walla Walla on the south, the Nez Perce on the south and east, the Coeur D’Alene, Spokane, and Columbia on the north, and the Wanapum and Yakima on the west (Endacott 1992:15). The Palus people are thought to have numbered about 5400 in A.D. 1780, but by A.D. 1805, it had declined to around 1600. A measles epidemic in 1847 reduced the population to about 500. Many of those who remained were killed by the U.S. Army when they resisted the takeover of their homeland by Europeans. By 1910, only 82 individuals remained, and in 1952, the last Palus member living at the large village at the mouth of the Palus River died (Endacott 1992:17; see Bartholomew 1982; Swanton 1952; Trafzer and Scheuerman 1980).
Based on ethnographic records, the Palus people probably lived in autonomous winter villages along the river, moved to established camps in the spring to collect roots and hunt small game, hunted large game and collected berries in the fall, and moved back to the villages in the winter where they subsisted on stored food until the spring. In addition, salmon runs provided large numbers of fish which could be stored in caches when dry. Walker (1967) documents Nez Perce food storage practices; Smith (1986) documents similar food storage methods for the Kalispell. Dry caves along the Snake River, like Squirt Cave, probably functioned as food storage facilities for the Palus and their ancestors. The location of the storage caches away from the village may have served to conceal resources during those times when the inhabitants were away hunting or digging roots in the uplands (DeBoer 1988).
Squirt Cave was discovered by Roland “Squirt” Marmes, who brought it to the attention of the Laboratory of Anthropology at Washington State University (WSU). The cave, which measures 12 m in length and is between 3 and 6 m wide, contained both pre-contact materials and historic materials related to the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad in the early part of the twentieth century. Seven of eight storage pits were excavated under contract with the National Park Service in 1964 under the supervision of Dr. Richard Daugherty. WSU graduate students including John Combes, James C. Chatters, and Gregory Cleveland conducted the excavations. These excavations took place contemporaneously with excavations at Marmes Rockshelter (45FR50) and Palus Village (45FR36) during preparations for the construction of the Lower Monumental Dam and the filling of the reservoir behind it.
The pits contained a collection of pre-contact materials notable for the large number of textiles, including basketry, matting, and cordage most likely used as containers and covering for stored food, as well as incised fired clay objects. In addition, the excavators recovered ground stone, flaked stone, bone, antler, shell, and wood tools.