MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK, 1965
In the summer of 1965, my family traveled to Kentucky for another camping vacation and the highlight of the trip was Mammoth Cave National Park. Since then, I visited three other caves, Niagara Falls State Park Cave of the Winds, Colorado Springs Cave of the Winds, and New York’s Howe Caverns, which was known as Mammoth Cave’s rival in 1855, but none of them left a mark on me quite as distinctive as Mammoth Cave.
My adolescent amazement at the sight of the cave’s historic natural entrance took my breath away. Slowly we descended the long stairway into the cave depths and the temperature of the air dropped to refrigeration. It was cold enough to preserve a dead body like the morgue. The constant 54 degree Fahrenheit was very chilly. I was glad to have my jacket.
This underground world was my own private expedition into a dark unknown. An ultimate adventure beyond my wildest imagination. I had never seen such a colossal hole in the ground, and I didn’t know what to expect. Beyond the tour guide and cave lights, I saw blackness down unlit corridors and passages, and I suspected that somewhere in that blackness, lost spelunkers were entombed. It was so exciting.
Huge caverns called “great rooms” and spectacular rock formations – domepits, draperies, dripstone and flowstone, and columns of joined stalactites and stalagmites – all contributed to the cave’s water deposit beauty that had me awestruck and speechless. It fired my curiosity.
HISTORY OF MAMMOTH CAVE
Before 2009, Mammoth Cave was considered one of the world’s largest known caves. Located in south-central Kentucky on the Green River, about 85 miles southwest of Louisville, there is a region of limestone caves that covers approximately 8,000 square miles through the states of Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
Legend says that in 1798 (or 1802 [exact date unconfirmed]), a local hunter, John Houchins, discovered the cavern while pursuing a wounded bear into the cave entrance. Also that same year, a pioneer by the name of Valentine Simons, posted in the Warren County records “200 acres of second-rate land lying on the Green River,” as well as two “petre caves.”
My family’s first tour was the Historic (1.5 miles – 1.5 hours), which started at the Mammoth Cave Historic Entrance and took us to the Rotunda area to see the saltpeter vats from the War of 1812. I learned that saltpeter (potassium nitrate [KNO3]) found in the cave was a major source of nitrate that was needed to make gunpowder during that war. Saltpeter was also very important for caves because it was a source of nutrients for other organisms that lived there.
As I moved further along the trail, I saw a cave stone statue in the likeness of Martha Washington and then passed by a section called Giant’s Coffin, which I don’t recall what that was and I would assume that the limestone took on a coffin image. Then our tour came upon two remaining stone buildings called, “consumptive huts,” which were built as an underground tubercular hospital as a research experiment for tuberculosis. The man responsible for that idea was Dr. John Croghan, who bought Mammoth Cave in 1839 from Franklin Gorin for $10,000. Unfortunately, the underground consumptive hospital experiment proved to be a failure, and ironically, Croghan contracted tuberculosis and died in 1849.
Mammoth Cave Prehistoric Mummy
I met a 2,000-year-old Archaic Indian mummy and he was my favorite part of the tour. I was thrilled to be so close to an ancient dead body that looked unbelievably physical after 20 centuries. I studied this mummy in his glass case from every angle. I knew that I would never forget him. He unknowingly planted in me an avid interest of archaeology and paleontology and ever since, my interest continued.
Then I wondered, who was this American prehistoric Archaic Indian (900 A.D. to 1,000 B.C.) who ventured 2.5 miles into Mammoth Cave to mine gypsum? And why gypsum?
The reason for gypsum mining by these Indians remains unclear to this day. Some historical clues indicated a possibility for a paint base, but other uses may have been a type of salt, diet additive, medicine, or maybe a fertilizer. Maybe they used it for toothpaste, or maybe they discovered that gypsum could be ground up and boiled at low temperature, which eliminated most of its moisture and created a fine powder. Maybe the Indians knew they could make a mortar from the powder by adding water – like Plaster of Paris – to form shapes that hardened. Maybe so, but I didn’t find evidence that supported this use as a part of their culture even though they had a limited use of pottery.
Gypsum naturally forms on rock surfaces as well as on walls and ceilings in Mammoth Cave. As they develop, they push older growths outward into different shapes and form a crust over an entire wall or ceiling. Uneven formations, called “blisters” or “snowballs,” are produced by pressure from behind, and when the “blister” opens, a beautiful, delicate shape is revealed – similar to flower-like petals, a rosette, or a fibrous mound that resembles cotton (see gypsum photo).
This ancient Indian gypsum miner was scraping gypsum from an overhead rock surface that was a 6.5‑ton boulder supported precariously by a small column of rock. The boulder dropped as he was digging into the rock surface. He was thrown from his kneeling position and crushed to death. For 20 centuries, he remained on his ledge under the rock boulder until he was found in 1935. His mummified body was well preserved by the cave’s refrigerated conditions.
His personal artifacts were also discovered nearby, which provided archaeologists important information in the reconstruction of his last hours. When I saw him in his final resting place with some of those artifacts (cane reeds for torches and a woven foot sandal), I remember my astonishment at the condition of his body. He still wore his woven loincloth, a shell pendant, and his skin still covered his bones, although dry and brittle looking. His nose remained with its nasal bone and septal cartilage, but his eyes and ears were gone. Even his toenails remained. I never knew what a human body looked like in death, and he inspired me to consider being an archaeologist who found dead bodies too.
According to cave historical records, its first mummy was discovered in 1813, by a man digging for saltpeter in the cave. It was the body of a tall, young Indian woman and she was found behind a large flat rock in a burial chamber, seated upright and covered with a blanket. She had dark reddish hair and her hands were held across her chest by a fiber cord. She was buried with some of her possessions, which were wrapped deerskins, fabric sandals, a woven knapsack, and a net bag. The knapsack and bag contained a cap, seven feather headdresses, a deer-hoof necklace, an eagle-claw pendant, a bear-jaw pendant, two rattlesnake skins, deer sinews, bone and horn needles, and two cane whistles.
By the late nineteenth century, other prehistoric Indian artifacts were discovered in the cave by other visiting archaeologists. Such items were a black-and-white-striped cloth, feather blankets, turkey tail-feather fans, baskets, squash-shell cups, raw textile materials, fishing nets, basket coffins of cane, and bows and arrows. The Indian culture found in Mammoth Cave was more primitive than other cultures to the north and east, and they were found to be evolving from a way‑of-life of hunting, fishing, and food gathering toward the next step of agriculture.
Mammoth Cave Underground River
The next tour I remember was the flat-bottom boat trip on the cave’s underground waterway called the Echo River (3 miles / 3 hours). The trail to the river went through the Rotunda, then through a section called Broadway, and again passed the Giant’s Coffin into a lower area of pits and domes. There was a 105-foot bottomless pit, and I remember squeezing through the winding corridor called “Fat Man’s Misery.” We reached the place called “River Hall,” and the trail moved down to Echo River, which was 360 feet below the surface.
The boat ride was eerie. It was so quiet, and the only light to see by was on the boat. The tour guide spoke of the famous blindfish that was discovered in 1838 in the cave’s river, but I don’t recall having seen any blindfish in the river; however, I did remember the wide‑brim hats and dark uniforms worn by the tour guides.
There were no other trails I remembered that our family toured in Mammoth Cave in 1965, but the photos I’ve seen of the “flowing” travertine rock formations in the area called “Frozen Niagara” look very familiar. Most likely I saw them in the cave, but I cannot recollect that specific tour.
I went back to the cave 26 years later with my daughters, and I was sadly disappointed to learn that the “mummy” I adored was gone. I was told by a tour guide that the reason for removing the Indian mummy to a hidden location within the cave system was due to the decision that his remains would no longer be for public display. Really? Those who made that decision felt there was a lack of respect to the remains as well as to his ancestors. I strongly disagree with their decision.
CASE IN POINT
Ötzi, the Iceman. A wet mummy that was mummified naturally in glacier ice 5,300 years ago and discovered in the Otztal Valley Alps on 19 September 1991 by two German tourists at an elevation of 10,530 feet (3,210 meters). The discovery site was on a mountain range in the central-eastern region of the Alps bordering southern Austria and northern Italy. Today, the mummy is stored in an icy vault at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.
I was so excited to hear about the discovery of Ötzi, the Iceman, that I couldn’t wait to meet him, even though it was only by way of television and print media pictures. I was as moved to see him and as hungry to learn as much as I could about him, as I was with the Indian mummy from Mammoth Cave.
Scientific examination of his body revealed his age to be approximately 45 years old, and 5 feet (1.60 meters) tall. Most of his body hair was lost during decomposition, but small clumps of hair found on his body were of medium-length and dark. From his DNA, the scientists’ found the oldest evidence of Lyme Disease, from his digestive tract they found whipworm eggs (an intestinal parasite), and from his clothes two human fleas. That’s exciting news.
Ötzi’s teeth, bones, joints, internal organs, and tattoos were also probed, but it was the results of his DNA analysis that I thought was the most profound and most valuable for the world today. His genome revealed his genetic ancestry was rare in Modern-Europe but found solely linked to the natives from the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, who were secluded from the mainland.
Another interesting fact revealed was that Ötzi was murdered. It’s a mystery that may never be solved, but intriguing nonetheless.
I can only surmise the probable results from an examination of the Mammoth Cave Indian mummy if scientists were allowed to survey the remains, which I suspect would prove to be important and just as profound as the results from the Iceman, but, unfortunately, some people need to force upon others their ideology, psychology, morality, etc. forsaking the value of science discoveries from future generations. I don’t know what future advances there will be in science, but today we do have DNA access. It is a wealth of information for knowledge about the human race, so why would people deny others this knowledge?
The Indian Mummy was an important teaching experience for me, and I am sure it was for others as well who witnessed his scientific preservation. He was an ancient human whose body introduced me to the world of physical and visual science. That was a big deal for me because I didn’t like science in school. It was boring. But my encounter with Mammoth Cave was an experience that changed my view of science leaving an everlasting, impressionable mark on me. It was “hands‑on” learning, and that is the best way to educate. There was so much to learn from the cave; geology, hydrology, archaeology, paleontology, natural rock decorations and deposits, and its more than 200 species of animals that inhabited this dark environment.
Our family camping trips during the 1960s to the southern States of Tennessee and Kentucky became invaluable for me. Those vacations provided sense experiences in a natural environment that a school classroom cannot teach; visual, touch, smell, hearing, and sometimes taste.
I’ve read many books in my youth and they were great for reaching into areas where I could not go or I did not know, but they cannot compare to the insight and knowledge I received from the historical places I’ve toured. Revisiting these places brought back fond times of an innocent era when my imagination was introduced to a world beyond the descriptive words of a book. It taught me to relive history through my senses, bringing back to life the lost voices from the past.
Ansley, Clarke F. (ed.). 1935. The Columbia Encyclopedia In One Volume. Columbia University Press.
e-ReferenceDesk.com. Kentucky Early History: Kentucky First Inhabitants. 2013.
E-opinions.com. Mammoth Cave National Park Consumer Reviews. 2013.
Construction Dimensions. 1985. Because water will return Gypsum to its Original Rock Form, Gypsum Has Earned Its Reputation as the “Wonder Mineral” in Construction.
Nps.gov. Gold, Grass, and Gypsum. 2013.
http://www.nps.gov/wica/historyculture/upload/-9D-11-Chapter-Eleven-Gypsum-and-Gold-Pp-382-440.pdfSouth Tyrol Museum of Archaeology -2016.The Mummy.
USDOI.NPS. 1965. Mammoth Cave National Park. Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.