Russell Cave Home to Massive Cave Parties Circa 7,000 B.C.

Russell Cave Home to Massive Cave Parties Circa 7,000 B.C.

davybackDavy Canupp

Davy is a founding editor of Huntsville Outdoors.  He hikes, he paddles, he bikes, he imbibes. He's been four feet from a grizzly bear and he's held an alligator. He's probably the coolest guy you don't know.

Admit it.  You arrived at this article while Googling "paleo" diets.  Yes, yes; you did.  We know, because we have Google Analytics.  OK?  Good, glad you came to terms with that.  Now, let's talk for real about what was going on during the Paleo Period, which ran from about 10,000 B.C. to 7,000 B.C.  Mostly, a lot of grunting and spearing.  Not much farming, but you already knew that.  There was, however, a massive cave party just between Scottsboro and Chattanooga.

Well, that's at least theoretically possible.  We are assuming partying was not very advanced at that point in our collective pre-history.  Mostly, focus stayed on survival 24/7.  However, to the extent parties were things that happened, they definitely would have happened at Russell Cave in Jackson County.  Russell Cave is just south of the Tennessee line about 5 miles off of modern-day U.S. Highway 72, a little over an hour outside of Huntsville.  For the longest time, I saw signs on U.S. 72 mentioning that the Cave -- a designated National Monument -- is 5 miles off the road.  A couple weeks ago, curiosity finally got to me and I stopped by on my way back to Huntsville. 

Turns out, I am one of a very small and select group of visitors.  Indeed, the Los Angeles Times has noted that Russell Cave is among the top 10 least visited places in the National Park system.  In fact, on my visit the Park Ranger looked genuinely surprised when I walked in and asked what the Cave was all about.  But that's today.  Until 1650 A.D., Russell Cave was perhaps one of the MOST visited areas in this region.  Our human ancestors lived there.  Indeed, people of various stripes resided and visited Russell Cave on a regular basis from 10,000 B.C. up through 1650 A.D. -- just under 400 years ago.  As a consequence, it has one of the most complete and most important collection of prehistoric artifacts of anywhere in the WORLD, and certainly one of the most significant in this region of the world. 

It turns out there have been three excavations of Russell Cave, the most notable one in 1956-1958 was conducted jointly by the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institute.  The results of the excavations (which only went down around 32 feet) are one of the most complete archeological records of prehistoric culture in the southeast.  The museum inside the Russell Cave visitor center has numerous pots, arrowheads, bone tools, and other really cool items. 

The cave itself is impressive.  It is easy to tell why it was selected as a cave shelter. Not only does it provide an obvious ecsape from the elements, but it has miles of tunnels inside in which people could live, explore, and even hunt (for bats).  There is also a prominent creek that flows directly INTO the cave, which strikes me as unusual just given my general experience with cave creeks, all of which seem to flow OUT of the cave.  There are numerous walking trails on the property as well, plus a giant sinkhole that you can view from the relative safety of a boardwalk. 

Overall, this is a cool stop.  It's not really a day-trip destination, but if you find yourself between Huntsville at Chattanooga, it is open 7 days a week and is barely 5 minutes off U.S. 72.  Definitely worth a 30 minute or so stop, especially if you have grade school kids.


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