When the local news finally caught up to the hiker, he made a simple request: to keep him anonymous. He had, after all, found a few “pieces of metal” in the dusty Utah dirt that would send historians into a frenzy. He didn’t want attention.

When his discovery was turned over to local experts, however, they couldn’t help but feel like there was something foul in the air. Was history really about to be revisited, reconsidered, and revised? Or had they just been snared in an elaborate hoax?

The hiker was from Colorado, so he was no stranger to the mountainous west. The red rocks, the altitude, the sunset shimmering off the man-made Lake Powell was what he lived for. Still, during a September 2018 hike something stood out to him.

Photo by Tim Tadder/Corbis via Getty Images

There was trash everywhere. In a tourist hot spot called Halls Crossing, wine medallions, old soda cans, and more house boat trash covered the ground. Haphazardly, the hiker picked up two old bottle caps, trying to make the place a little cleaner.

dshorety / reddit

Before he pocketed the caps, however, the hiker noticed a few details: One was the size of a quarter; the other was the size of a dime. Greenish in color, they looked more like ancient coins than bottle toppers. Curious, he went home to research.

KSL News

He searched for the coins on Google, describing the text and whatever images he could make out. He found the largest coin matched something the Spanish used in the late 1600s. The smallest one? Well, what he learned made him feel sick.

National Park Services

If the hiker’s research was correct, the smaller coin was from the 1290s — about 400 years before Columbus sailed for America. And when Spanish conquistadors explored North America, they never reached within 100 miles of the spot the coins were found.

These coins were history — serious history, the hiker realized. How had medieval Spanish coins ended up so far North? Coins from before Europeans even reached the Americas? Had he jeopardized any ability to find the answer by carelessly plucking the coins from the soil?

tr.robinson / Flickr

Finding the answers to those questions was way above his pay grade, however, so he turned the coins over the Utah National Park Services. With a little more time and resources, they could find out the coins’ story. They were ecstatic.

National Park Services

“This is very exciting,” said park service archaeologist Brian Harmon, below, who lauded the hiker for turning the coins over to the proper authorities. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my career.” Obtaining answers wasn’t going to be business as usual.

KSL News

Until they had more information, the experts wanted curious tourists and locals to avoid digging around the area. So they kept the coins a secret, working behind closed doors to avoid any prying media eyes.

National Park Services

Lisa Riedel, below, a Glen Canyon National Recreation Area technician, gleefully handled the coins first. “For being in the elements,” she said, “they look really well-preserved.” While the hiker was relieved he hadn’t damaged history, this preservation was both good and bad news.

KSL News

The bad news? If the coins really were from early Spanish explorers and spent centuries in the hot Utah soil, would they be in such good shape? Brian Harmon chewed on this; there were three distinct theories he had about the coins and their place in history.

Brian considered that the coins could be counterfeits. Maybe someone really enjoyed shaping metals into old, Spanish heirlooms. Maybe they intentionally wanted to trick historians. This certainly would explain why the coins were in such great condition.

It was also possible the coins were completely authentic but were lost on a hike by a modern-day coin collector. After all, water levels in the area did rise and fall frequently. The coins might have been carried by the Colorado river. But Brian had a favorite theory.

Annamarie Klose

“One possibility is that there was some Spanish presence in that area that just is undocumented or is very poorly documented,” Brian said. That would be special. “Another possibility is that these coins were traded to a Native American group by the early Spanish explorers and settlers.”

Ute Indians

With a mind full of theories, Brian and his team started “reaching out to experts in old Spanish coins to learn, are these authentic? How old are they?” It took over a year of searching for the right professional before the team found answers.

National Park Services

Spanish coin experts Fernando Vela Cossio and Luis Fernando Abril Urmente studied the hiker’s find and tried to determine whether or not the coins were real. They checked the metal makeup of the coins, as well as the thickness and diameter.

Yaniv Berman

What they found delighted Brian: the coins were authentic. This was huge! This was Earth-shattering! Except, before the park services team could get excited, Cossio and Urmente urged them to consider a few details.

The coins were used about 400 years apart, they were picked out of house boat trash (which evidently contained U.S. minted coins), and they were not found in an area with additional evidence of Spanish explorers. It wasn’t like they’d been uncovered with a metal detector.

Taking these details into consideration, Brian and the experts surmised the coins likely came from a modern-day coin collector who maybe partied to hard on a house boat. How this expert’s coins ended up in a man-made reservoir, though, remained a mystery. Brian weighed in.

a-dark-passenger / reddit

“Spanish coins, Spanish artifacts of this age are extremely rare in the Americas,” Brian said, “so this is really exciting to see this.” He knew how much of an impact a single artifact could have on the way we view history.


For instance, when archeologist Guillermo de Anda and his crew arrived in the ancient city of Chichén Itzá on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, their original mission was to better understand the ancient Maya civilization. He didn’t realize a small find would have impacts on the future of humanity.

They wanted to access and study what is called a cenote, a sinkhole the ancient tribes believed were portals of access to the underworld. The cenote they sought was allegedly beneath the Temple of Kukulka.

My Cancun

Their plans changed, however, when a local told them about “The Cave of the Jaguar God.” Besides a totally awesome name, the cave was steeped in a history Guillermo couldn’t ignore.

Public Radio International

See, archeologist Víctor Segovia Pinto had visited the cave in 1966 and, in an apparently unspecific report, noted “extensive amounts of archeological material” hidden inside. Instead of excavating it, however, he curiously ordered the cave sealed up.

Over the next 50 years, most locals of the former-Mayan settlement forgot about Jaguar God. So Guillermo and his crew were delighted by the opportunity to find what Víctor had ignored. They knew what caves meant to the Mayans.

As Mayan expert Holley Moyes said, because of their believed connection to the underworld, “Caves and cenotes… represent some of the most sacred spaces for the Maya, ones that also influenced site planning and social organization.”

So, refocusing their energies on the potential of Jaguar God, Guillermo and his crew recruited a Mayan priest to conduct a 6-hour purification ritual. This would ensure their safe journey into the potential holy hot spot.

Their offering to the cave guardians was modest: honey, a fermented drink called pozole, and even tobacco, but it got the job done. Officially protected in the eyes of Maya, they entered the long-sealed cave.

Kayla Ortega via NPR

Inside was a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare: for well over an hour, Guillermo crawled on his stomach through narrow, twisting tunnels, only a headlamp illuminating the pathway.

National Geographic

Guillermo didn’t seem to mind. “I’ve analyzed human remains in [Chichén Itzá’s] Sacred Cenote,” he said. “But nothing compares to the sensation I had entering, alone, for the first time in that cave. You almost feel the presence of the Maya.”


After an hour-and-half of painstakingly slow crawling, his helmet finally illuminated something curious.” I couldn’t speak,” Guillermo recalled of the moment he finally understood what he saw. “I started to cry.”

The Weather Channel

It wasn’t that he’d finally reached a chamber with enough room to stand up in that made him cry, either. Rather, he’d stumbled upon the archeological equivalent of a winning lotto ticket.

Piles of ancient artifacts lay before him: grinding stones, decorated plates, and more, all in “an excellent state of preservation,” despite looking like they were caked in a few billion years’ worth of mud.

National Geographic

Impressively, thanks to centuries of dripping water, stalactites formed around some of the ancient artifacts and ritual objects, like this incense burner. All in all, there were about 150 well-preserved items in that cave!

Kayla Ortega via NPR

“Thinking about Maya in ancient times going there, through those passageways, crawling with a big incense burner and a torch,” Guillermo said, “you see how important these caves were for them.”

Along with giving Guillermo newfound respect for the Maya, the cave and the items inside, he knew, would provide invaluable information on the tribe’s rituals — and more.

Karla Ortega / Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History

“Jaguar God can tell us not only the moment of collapse of Chichén Itzá,” Guillermo surmised. “It can also probably tell us the moment of its beginning.”

Viajes National Geographic

“Now we have a sealed context,” he continued, “with a great quantity of information, including usable organic matter, that we can use to understand the development of Chichén Itzá.”


More than that, though, experts believe further study of the area will shed some light on the region’s climate, and how disastrous droughts possibly led to the Maya’s mysterious first demise.

“By studying these caves and cenotes,” National Geographic archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert said, “it’s possible to learn some lessons for how to best use the environment today, in terms of sustainability for the future.”

NPR via Karla Ortega

For this reason, Guillermo believed his work in archeology was truly saving the world. By studying Maya, he said, “we can understand the footprints of humankind’s past, and what was happening on Earth during one of the most dramatic moments in history.”

But Guillermo’s profession was noble for reasons beyond that which he listed. Thousands of miles from Jaguar God, for instance, archeologists used science to answer a 14,000-year-old question about some of our earliest ancestors.

National Geographic

Specifically, the Heiltsuk people, the First Nation indigenous to British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, have laid claim to the remote Triquet Island for nearly 5,000 years. But archaeologists dismissed their claim of ownership at first for one glaring reason.

Simon Fraser University

The continental glacier that formed over Canada during the last Ice Age would’ve also covered Triquet Island, making it uninhabitable. But even with the facts stacked against the Heiltsuk, a small group of researchers took it upon themselves to uncover the truth once and for all.

The Robinson Library

The archaeologists began an extensive excavation of the remote island in the hope of discovering traces of a past civilization. What they found there not only shocked the entire archaeological community, but it also changed history forever.

Second Nexus

Beneath several layers of earth, they found remnants of an ancient, wood-burning hearth. But how could this be? According to researchers, it would’ve been impossible for humans to dig their way through the glacial ice to get to the soil below.

As they continued digging, researchers unearthed additional artifacts, including tools and weapons. This discovery stumped the team as the Heiltsuk people traditionally didn’t use tools of this kind.

The Heiltsuk people had derived their food source from fishing and smoking salmon, utilizing small, precise tools to harvest the fish. The tools and weapons found were much larger and likely would’ve been used to hunt large sea mammals, such as seals, sea lions, and walruses.

What’s more, the team also uncovered shards of obsidian, a glass-like rock only found in areas of heavy volcanic activity. This discovery also puzzled the archaeologists, as there were no known volcanoes near that part of British Columbia. So, how did this rock — and these people — get there?


The historians deduced that whoever left these artifacts must have traversed the land bridge that existed between Siberia and Alaska during prehistoric times. Yet researchers still needed cold-hard facts…

Luckily, a closer inspection of the hearth revealed ancient charcoal remains, which the archaeologists quickly brought to the lab for carbon dating. When they received the results, the researchers couldn’t believe their eyes: everything they knew was a lie.

According to the carbon dating report, these bits of charcoal were an astonishing 14,000 years old, making them the oldest carbon remains ever to be discovered in North America.

Even by global standards, this was an extraordinary find. After all, these simple pieces of charcoal were older than the Great Pyramid of Giza and even predated the invention of the wheel! But that’s not the most remarkable fact about this discovery.

The 14,000-year-old discovery placed the earliest Heiltsuk at Triquet Island 2,000 years before the end of the ice age. Therefore, the island couldn’t have been covered by the massive continental glacier. And that’s not all.

Since Triquet Island was surrounded on all sides by water, the early Heiltsuk would’ve used boats to traverse the open waters. Boats, however, were not believed to have been invented until centuries later.


This meant that the Heiltsuk settled the area 2,000 years before initially believed. If this was the case, then these early men likely crossed paths with some of history’s most formidable beasts.

As the Heiltsuk people made their way south from the land bridge, they likely had to fend off giant creatures like mastodons, woolly mammoths, and giant sloths. But somehow, these humans survived, and it’s likely for one crucial reason.

Thanks to the Pacific Ocean itself, the sea level at Triquet Island remained constant for over 15,000 years. So as the sea gradually eroded the surrounding islands, the great beasts of the Pacific Northwest were kept at bay, leaving the Heiltsuk to a peaceful, secluded existence.

The most astounding realization that’s come to light is the fact that the Heiltsuk people were able to preserve their history orally for nearly 14,000 years. However, they are still being deprived of their history’s legitimacy.

When the media caught wind of the story, they seemed to focus more on what the discovery meant for the scientific community rather than acknowledge the rich history of the Heiltsuk. To many, the media’s portrayal of the nation was seen as highly disrespectful.

As a result, University of Victoria student Alisha Gauvreau — who was present during the excavation — has dedicated herself to shifting the focus of the dialogue toward the Heiltsuk people.

The Heiltsuk claim to Triquet Island stands as one of the oldest land-ownership claims in the world. Not only does this discovery speak volumes about the strength of the Heiltsuk people, but it also represents the indomitable spirit of mankind.

kris krüg / Flickr