Footprints across time…

4,500 Year Old Footprints Of Indigenous Explorers
4,500 Year Old Footprints Of Indigenous Explorers

4,500 years ago is hard for me to wrap my head around; the Great Pyramid of Giza was soon going to be built, the Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations didn’t exist yet and the Mayan civilization was just beginning.

Around this time in the Late Archaic period, a group of nine indigenous explorers (one even suspected to be an adolescent) entered Wolf River Cave in what is now Fentress County, Tennessee with bundles of river cane torches in hand, setting out to explore its dark zone passages. Visitation to caves by indigenous people has been well documented and is evidenced by river cane torch (stoke) marks on the walls of cave passages, freshwater gastropod shells, pictographs and petroglyphs, to a lesser extent chert and gypsum mining, and even ceremonial or mortuary use.

Despite there being no evidence of mining or ceremonial use, Wolf River Cave is special. Deep within is a passage called Aborigine Avenue, where 274 relatively complete footprints have remained relatively intact and preserved over the millennia. In 1976, cavers found these footprints and reported them to Patty Jo Watson, who studied and documented the imprints with caver support from members of the Cave Research Foundation (CRF) and National Speleological Society (NSS), as well as anthropology and archaeology students from Washington University (St. Louis). This paper is available online at the SCCi website: https://saveourcaves.org/learn/research.html .

Protecting Wolf River Cave
Fast forward to 2002. The cave and surrounding property, all part of a family farm, was sold at auction and purchased by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy (SCCi) in partnership with The Nature Conservancy Chapter (TNC), and Bat Conservation International (BCI).

Today, SCCi sustainably manages Wolf River Cave in line with their three main points of focus: conservation of its vulnerable species and archaeological artifacts; education; and its steadfast commitment to recreational access for people interested in this unique and fascinating adventure.

In 2018 we had the opportunity to visit Aborigine Avenue as part of the Veterans Adventure Group trip that was approved by Ray Knott (Executive Director of SCCi) and the Board of Directors. As stated above, education and recreation are main areas of focus for SCCi and while they work to conserve cave resources, they also believe that caves should be used in educational outreach and should be experienced by visitors for generations to come. Clearly, it is a difficult balance, and SCCi agreed to the creation of a blog post and new photos to highlight their archaeological conservation efforts.

Wolf River Footprints
Of all of the cave trips I have been on, this trip was my favorite. I am fascinated with the archaeological aspects of caving, and I am in awe that these footprints still exist after so many millennia… imprints made by people who clearly did not have modern equipment like boots, knee pads, and LED headlamps!

I reached out to Ken Pasternack to see if he would be willing to lead our trip. After getting the green light from Ray Knott, we set our entry for August 1, 2020.

Wolf River Cave is approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes from Murfreesboro, TN. Arriving slightly ahead of schedule we had a few moments to gear up before Ken arrived. Ken pulled up right on time, and after initial greetings led us over the metal guardrail on the bridge just past Wolf River Cave and down the semi-worn trail to its entrance. The water in the Wolf River was not high despite days of rain. After initial fumbling with the clunky lock on the enormous cave gate, we each slid through and into the first watery passage. Before proceeding, Ken made everyone aware of the key around his neck and secured another in a magnetic box to the gate so that in the event of an emergency, we would be able to exit the cave and seek assistance.

Exiting the water and going uphill to the right I was sad to see that the beaver friend who we had seen last time was not there to greet us. Moving along he pointed out the prehistoric hearth used by Native Americas and then made our way along several stream crossings. During this process we found what appeared to be a spool of kite string that must have been left by a previous visitor. As we proceeded on our journey, we traced it with the intention of removing it on our way out of the cave. Leave no trace!

On the way we moved past a data collection device from a scientific study monitoring temperatures and perhaps humidity levels with the cave and Ken pointed out a great example of a coral fossil in the cave wall. Moving past a large section of flowstone it wasn’t long before we encountered one of the first examples of cane torch stoke marks left by indigenous people exploring these very same passages. Continuing on our way Ken opined out a section on the ceiling that is a good landmark in that it looks like the face of an Easter Island status and then an impressive dome shortly after. The moisture level was far greater than my previous visit as we could hardly see the top of the dome.

Further still Ken took a moment to point out a great example of anastomosis. not long after we reached the Towering Inferno, a extensive climb up breakdown in a large dome that gets its name from the appearance of smoke, though actually water vapor condensing from air moving up towards the dome after passing by the cool stream water running below. Also, as you climb the temperature quickly rises and it feels significantly hotter. Reaching a resting point 2/3 of the way up, we could hear the loud and high pitch noise of a large number of gray bats roosting. From here, we climbed on a large diagonally slanted piece of breakdown and proceeded to have each child in our party use my knee and a handline to climb up another slab that leads to The Only Crawl (lies!). After that crawl we made our way down a slope and to the camp and register. Here it was time for a snack and water break. We took a few additional minutes looking up our last trip in the register and took the opportunity to add this trip before proceeding.

Knowing that we were close to our destination we took a moment to look at a section of wall that had some great examples of gypsum flowers and selenite needles. Moving beyond, we made our way up a decent climb and then onto the breakdown field that leads to what I call the Blue Hole (no official name on the map), a waterfall that drops into a pool of water 60 feet below. At the blue hole you can still see a section of what appears to be carpet, likely shag that was once used to protect rope as a caver lowered themselves down to explore the area at the base of the falls, speaking to the time period which that likely occurred.

From the Blue Hole it wasn’t far to the roped off entrance to Aborigine Avenue where we took the opportunity to explain to the kids the importance of the area which we were entering and why they needed to be exceptionally careful not to disturb its contents. Moving along into the passage we made our way up and down several slopes and climbs admiring the various formations along the way and weaved along several twists in the passage before reaching an area circled by plastic tape and rocks with a significant amount of charred torch remains where Ken suspected that indigenous people set an entire bundle down, letting it burn and light the area. Perhaps it was a rest stop?

He also pointed out an area that had stoke marks above a ledge with fragments of burnt torch below. Now, I’m not sure exactly which cane fragments in this passage were the ones that were radiocarbon dated or if they were taken in their entirety, but according to the paper by Patty Jo Watson, the indigenous people who explored this section did so approximately 4,500 – 5,000 years ago. Further along Ken was entertained and pointed out carbide writing on the floor that said “LOOK UP” and upon doing so you could see a large blackened spot on the coiling where cane torches were stoked.

Soon after we reached several taped-off areas where footprints became evident. Each included a small tag with a number where Patty Jo and her team meticulously studied, measured, and documented each footprint, including one that appears to be adolescent due to its size.

By just about any standard, Aborigine Avenue can be described as borehole passage and would be worth visiting even if not for the archaeological remnants. It has dips, twists and turns as well as beautiful stalactites and stalagmites, various examples of drapery, along with two fairly deep pits requiring crawling along a ledge on your side to move beyond. Coming across one section, there is an area of footprints taped off and just past a lip that you crawl to the right of, that is what I feel is the most intact footprint; tag number 43 is set fairly deep in the dirt and the entire impression including that of each toe can be seen. According to Patty Jo’s documentation it is 24 cm in length, putting it at roughly a 7 1/2 – 8 modern shoe size. Laying on the crawlway I took the opportunity to snap another photo and take video of this footprint and those surrounding it specifically before moving towards the last section of footprints at the end of the passage. The last section of footprints that are taped off isn’t the actual end of the cave passage itself. It extends for several more hundred feet but on inspection cavers did not identify any additional footprints. The indigenous explorers 4,500 years ago must have reached this point and decided not to proceed through the additional crawling passage beyond. It is known from Patty Jo’s study that the group of 9 entered this passage at two separate times, either during the same trip or on another.

It’s import to note that the Southeastern Cave Conservancy (SCCi) works to manage and protect not just the cave ecosystem and environment, and the archaeological artifacts, but paleontological resources as well in the form of many examples of Pleistocene Jaguar footprints in several areas of the cave. In two different instances between 10,000 and 35,000 years ago January (Panthera once) entered the cave and died while searching for an exit. The prints of their paws are well preserved, which I had the opportunity to see an example on the previous trip and would love to make a future trip to see more of. From Aborigine Avenue it took us approximately 1 1/2 – 2 hrs to exit the cave. Along the way we removed the kite string trail that had been left by previous visitors. A special thanks to Ken Pasternack for leading this trip along with Ray Knott and the Southeastern Cave Conservancy (SCCi) for making this trip possible and being willing to have video taken to share and help document the incredible work they do and help educate the public regarding the fascinating contents of Wolf River Cave.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *