Long ago, a group of nine Prehistoric Native American explorers approached Wolf River Cave in Tennessee with river cane torches in hand, and waded into the small stream that emerges from it’s mouth. With only the light from their torches, they crossed into the caves dark zone passages, eventually making their way down a side passage approximately two hours journey from the cave’s entrance. They explored this passage to its end before turning around and exiting by the route from which they came, leaving footprints and torch material in the cave mud. These footprints remained, undisturbed for over 4,500 years.
This cave had been known and explored in the modern era, but thought to end after only 600 meters. In 1976, cavers surveyors from the National Speleological Society (NSS) found additional miles of passage and came upon the prehistoric remnants footprints of these prehistoric explorers. They immediately notified archaeologists who proceeded to assemble a team who were able to investigate the prehistoric exploration of this cave with a focus on the passage that became known as “Aborigine Avenue”.
Fast forward to July 20, 2002… this particular cave and its surrounding property were part of a family farm being sold at auction. Aware of the auction and the significance of the cave in terms of its biology, anthropology, archaeology, and zoology… the Southeastern Cave Conservancy Inc., in partnership with the Tennessee Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and Bat Conservation International (BCI) outbid other potential buys with a winning bid of $74,000 for the cave tract of land. The purchase was completed on August 16, 2002 with SCCi holding the title to the property and it being managed under a joint agreement with the TNC. For those who are not aware, SCCi was founded in 1991 and is the world’s largest land conservancy dedicated solely to cave conservation, protecting the habitat of endangered animals, preserve historic artifacts, and provide places for recreational caving.
This particular purchase was in alignment with each of the organizations goals by helping to protect:
Oldest human footprints found in the dark zone of a cave
Tracks of extinct Jaguars
Second largest hibernation colony of the rarest endangered bat species in the Southeast (a winter colony of approximately 2,500 Indiana Bats).
Accessibility for cavers and nature lovers to visit the cave and preserve property
FOLLOWING IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS...
On May 5th at 1:00pm, the Veteran’s Adventure Group and one of the preserve’s SCCi property managers, Ken Pasternack arrived at the cave’s gated entrance. Having checked the weather forecast earlier that morning, we saw that there was a chance for a small amount of light rain, but Ken assured us that the cave’s water levels were generally stable and that it would take multiple days of heavy rain to cause concern. It took around 10 minutes to unlock the gate, and get the entire group to pass through, before re-locking it and making out way through through the initial portion of the stream passage from the mouth of the cave.
On the way to the first major landmark, the path follows the winding stream passage where there are thick slippery deposits of mud. Along the way there are a few impressive flow-stone formations, coral, as well as the first sign of river cane stoke marks made by the Native Americans who explored this cave. Ken explained that its thought by researchers, that the Native Americans would walk along the cave passages, with their hand on the wall, and then switch going in the opposite direction when it was time to leave the cave… helping them to navigate its complex passages, with minimal light compared to today’s LED headlamps, and still find their way out.
It took an 1 hr and 15 minutes to reach the Towering Inferno considering the size of our group and abundance of questions. It is a huge pile of breakdown limestone boulders. At times, the room can produce clouds of water vapor due to the meeting of warmer and cool air, giving the impression of smoke and lending to its name. The “Aborigine Avenue” researchers that studied the footprints reportedly found a few cane torch fragments in this breakdown though none were visible to us, along with cane stoke smudges on the walls and ceilings.
This room is where the known portion of the cave originally ended before the NSS cavers surveyors in 1976 found the low, wide “Only Crawl” passage that provides access to the additional portions of the cave that include the “Horrendous Trunk” and “Tremendous Trunk”.
Soon after climbing the Towering Inferno, we made our way through the “Only Craw” passage (lies!) and to the registry that is conveniently located at the table and chairs that were assembled for tired and weary cavers, before signing and then taking a long break for lunch.
The Tremendous Trunk extends for 550 meters and is covered in breakdown. Making your way across the breakdown, you eventually hear the sound of falling water that indicates that you have reached the “Blue Hole”… an underground waterfall that empties into a beautiful blue pool below.
As you make your way through the Tremendous Trunk, there are several sites like the “Enchanted Forest” (future trip!) along with a smaller side passage, not easily found, called “Aborigine Avenue” that was previously mentioned. This is where the prints of bare human feet were found. As you approach “Aborigine Avenue” it is obvious that you are entering a research area that has clear markings to make it known that it is off limits. Being that this is a “Caver’s Cave” with stream passage, difficult to traverse breakdown, and miles of passage that can at times be complex, we were told that SCCi has generally not had any issues difficulties ensuring that this passage remain off limits and preserved for future generations.
After crossing the boundary into “Aborigine Avenue”, we made our way down the slightly winding passage and quickly saw evidence of the Native American visitors that explored here… more cane stoke fragments and charcoal specifically.
Finally, we approached the area where the actual footprints are located and found them to be taped off, signaling visitors to take care and steer clear as to not disturb them. Some were barely visible and extremely shallow while others were deeper and more defined with each toe mark clearly visible. Each had a small tag left in the imprint, indicating which unique individual made the actual print.
Ken Pasternack was extremely knowledgeable and explained that the researchers who studied this passage, concluded that there were a total of nine Native Americans who explored this passageway, leaving nearly 300 footprints in total. He also noted that they determined that there were at least two trips, at different times.
To study the passage, the researchers would lay across the areas that contain footprints on boards like the one below to reach remote areas and measure each carefully.
Since the footprints are only imprints of the soles of their feet, there is no way to date them. Fortunately there are extensive cane torch stoke marks and charcoal fragments spread throughout the passage that were able to be radiocarbon-dated… showing that these explorers had visited this passage a staggering 4,500 years ago in the Middle Archaic Period.
Once the group finished observing the footprints in the passage, we started making out way back to the “Tremendous Trunk”, but first got to take a look at a few of the beautiful formations that were present in the passage that we didn’t get to fully appreciate while focused on the footprints.
Also of interest regarding this cave are it’s paleontological findings. In two different instances between 10,000 and 35,000 years ago, Pleistocene (the last ice age) jaguars (Panthera onca) became trapped and after wandering for a period, died while trying to find an exit. Their claw marks and giant paw prints can be found in several areas of the cave, including suspected claw marks in “Aborigine Avenue”.
On our way out of the cave Ken was able to take us by one set of jaguar paw prints thought to be approximately 30,000 years old, though faded through the millennia, they were still clearly evident by utilizing a side-lighting technique to enhance the shadows.
In addition to the paw prints claw marks, the skeletal remains of two jaguars, along with fragments from a multitude of other species have been recovered from the cave including mastodon, long nosed peccary, dire wolf, horse, tapir, and camel… more than 50 vertebrae species identified in the “Tremendous Trunk”.
Today, the paleontological material is permanently curated in the Section of Vertebrate Fossils at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Realizing that it was now 6:20pm and that our questions interest in the prehistoric evidence of both the Native Americans and the jaguars brought us far behind schedule, we decided to make our way back to the cave’s entrance while taking in a few last sights along the way…
I would like to extend a special thank you to Southeastern Cave Conservancy, not just for granting permission for this trip, but also for its dedication to preserving sites like this while still providing scientific and recreational access. Also to Ken Pasternack for his time and leading the Veteran’s Adventure Group on this trip and for sharing his knowledge along the way.