How to Use
Reading 1: The First Explorers
Arriving at the mouth of the great cave, a group of people begin a cautious descent into the mysterious darkness. For torches they carry flaming bundles made from cane reeds that have been gathered from the banks of the river and dried in the sun. As they move downward, their faces are brushed by the cool rush of air that comes from deep within the cave. Their torchlights flicker from the breeze. Sharp rocks on the cave floor push through their thin fiber sandals and grab at their feet. But they press steadily on, downward into the darkness.
Crouching as they proceed through a low passageway, they suddenly emerge into a great chamber, one so large that their torchlight does not reach across it. From this great chamber they walk through a large, arching tunnel of stone. The dancing orange light from their torches makes the cave walls seem to move like animals, but they have been followed into the cave only by their own shadows.
Up ahead, faint at first, then bright like stars in the nighttime sky, little rays of light twinkle from a high ledge near the ceiling of the great cave. One man climbs up onto a treacherous ledge to try to find the source of these twinkling lights. He crouches and sticks his torches into the soft dirt. Then he gets down on his knees and leans forward to use his digging stick to scratch into the cave dirt. He works slowly at first, and then faster and faster. Just beneath an overhanging boulder that leans toward the caveís ceiling, he has found the source of the twinkling lights. He has uncovered the beautiful minerals that will attract many generations of people to the cave. As he uncovers the small rocks from the dirt, he hears his companions call out to him from below.
Suddenly he feels a great weight pressing against his back; he cannot move his shoulder. The cool dampness of the cave soil presses against his face. In an instant his light is gone and there is only darkness around him. He does not hear the shouts of his companions below, as they watch helplessly as a large boulder falls and pins him to the ledge entombing him in the soft cave soil.
Many centuries later, two men crawl and climb along a rock strewn ledge near the ceiling of the cave. They move cautiously so they will not fall to the cave floor below. Tour guides for many years, both are veterans at moving around in the cave. One of the men decides to go around a large boulder, but slips for a moment, catching his balance by putting his hand down to steady himself. He has done this dozens of times before. This time, however, something feels different. Rather than the usual rough and jagged surface of the ledges, he feels something smooth and rounded. He calls his companion to come and look. To the amazement of the two guides, the dim light of their kerosene lanterns reveals the faint outline of the top of a manís head sticking out from beneath the large boulder. Quickly the men leave the cave to find others, including archeologists, to come and see their discovery.
That year, 1935, proved to be one of the most exciting years for archeological research in Mammoth Caveís history. The two guides, Lyman Cutliff and Grover Campbell, had found what archeologists would determine was the well-preserved body of a man who had visited the cave almost 2,000 years before. Their studies indicated that the man had indeed been on the ledge looking for something when he was trapped beneath the large boulder. With the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps, archeologists lifted the heavy boulder with ropes and pulleys, and revealed the body. The physical evidence showed that the man belonged to a group of people archeologists refer to as "Early Woodland"--a people who hunted game and gathered wild foods in the eastern woodland forests. They were also the first farmers in the Green River Valley, experimenting with growing gourds and sunflowers. Their artifacts, including cane reed torches, digging sticks, and sandals made from vegetable fibers "twined" together, have been found in many parts of Mammoth Cave.
Archeologists believe these first explorers probed deep into the cave to collect minerals such as gypsum which formed in the drier passageways. Why would they take such risks to collect minerals? Perhaps to use them in religious ceremonies or to trade to other groups. Perhaps the idea of collecting the sparkling minerals from beneath the earth made them especially valuable. The complete answer to this and other questions lies still buried deep in the darkness of Mammoth Cave.
Questions for Reading 1
1. How does the reading help you to identify with the first groups of explorers of Mammoth Cave?
2. What type of lights did these explorers use and how did they get the material to make them?
3. What were some of the sensations and emotions these people may have felt as they entered the cave?
4. Why do you think that people first went into the cave? What do you think it would be like to be an explorer with only the simple tools and equipment of these first explorers?
5. What product was found in the cave that can tell us about why prehistoric people pursued their explorations of Mammoth Cave?
Reading 1 was compiled from Alonzo W. Pond, Lost John of Mummy Ledge (New York: The American Museum of Natural History, 1937); and Kenneth B. Tankersley, Patrick J. and Cheryl Ann Munson, and Patty Jo Watson, "Prehistoric Selenite and Satinspar Mining in the Mammoth Cave System, Kentucky," Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 14, no. 2 (Kent State University Press, 1989), 119.