Recent Findings from Lower Salts Cave


Paleoethnobotanists Lee Newsom (light shirt) and Kitty Roberts (dark shirt) prepare to extract a core from the climbing pole (on the ledge in front of them). Lower Salts Cave, KY. Original photo by caver and cave photographer Charles Swedlund, SIU-Carbondale.


The prehistoric climbing pole being examined by Lee Newsom, Lower Salts Cave. Photo by Charles Swedlund.
About 4000 years ago prehistoric people in what is now Kentucky began exploring portions of the world's longest cave -- the Mammoth Cave System, 350 miles mapped and still going. Between 2800 and 2300 years ago, these ancient explorers intensively mined many miles of cave passages, removing large quantities of cave minerals apparently for medicinal and ceremonial purposes.

Since 1963, faculty and student archaeologists of the Anthropology Department at Washington University have been collaborating with the Cave Research Foundation and with Mammoth Cave National Park officials in a long-term study of the prehistoric activity in these caves. During Fall Semester 1995, a team of archaeologists, paleoethnobotanists, and speleologists journeyed to the lower levels of Salts Cave where they obtained a small core from a 3 m long, beautifully preserved climbing or scaling pole (identified as the trunk of a small red/black oak tree by paleoethnobotanist/wood identification specialist Lee Newsom, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale) left in a remote passage by the ancient cavers.

The Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS) radiocarbon determination on the core has just been received from Beta Analytic laboratory: Beta-87915, measured age 2760 +/- 40 years before present (BP); conventional C14 age 2720 +/- 40 BP; calibrated results, 925 to 805 B.C. This determination is the latest in a series of AMS dates frum Salts Cave and Mammoth Cave comprising dates on two other climbing poles, a digging stick, and a split-cane basket, all falling hetween 2800 and 2500 years old, and all forming part of the mining technology employed by tough, daring group of prehistoric Native American cavers.