Antelope Cave

In a 1974 publication of the Kingman Daily Miner, an article by Roman Malach details a trip to Antelope Cave, which is located south of Colorado City, AZ, on the Arizona Strip. The author of the article was led to the site by two Colorado City locals, one of them a law enforcement officer, and the other the school superintendent. I stumbled upon this article, and subsequent others, after reading about small tobacco pouches found inside Antelope Cave. I was surprised to learn of a great many scientific findings based on the artifacts that have been extracted from this site. Many from the area have traveled to the cave, which is now closed off to protect the remaining archeological evidence and to prevent potential injury due to its unstable geological nature.

Many fail to fully appreciate the voluminous history tucked into nearly every corner of the land. With a keen eye, it is not hard to find middens of pottery shards, petroglyphs, arrowheads, and stone structures from bygone eras. I certainly failed to appreciate this. There were many times in my youth that I denounced my homeland as culturally destitute, with no history beyond the one I was presented, which related to my direct heritage.

All of that changed when I stumbled upon my first set of pictographs while hiking alone. Coming face to face with this living history, invoked the same sense that you get visiting a museum with artifacts from the far-flung corners of the world. It’s easy to overlook your own home as disinteresting, while viewing other places as far more exotic.

Wupatki National Monument near Flagstaff, Arizona, was the first place to really give me a sense of the grandeur of the civilizations that used to inhabit this part of the world. There are magnificent red sandstone structures, many of them beautifully preserved, that testify to the rich cultural inhabitance, that predated European settlement. They are essentially castles in the middle of the desert. These experiences sparked an intense personal interest, leading me to look more closely for evidence of these cultures at home, a never-ending source of amusement.

The history of Antelope Cave is fascinating. It contains evidence of it being a shelter to various groups spanning a 4000-year timeframe. Some artifacts suggest that the earliest visitors of Antelope Cave came around 2000 B.C. To put that into perspective, the Great Pyramid at Giza was built around 2500 B.C.

Among the artifacts that have been found are: projectile points dating to the archaic period, corn, squash, beans, fiber sandals, rabbit fur blankets, ceramics, bows and arrows, and baskets. Each of these artifacts are tied to a specific group of people from specific times, each of them using Antelope Cave for shelter in their turn. The evidence of human activity comes right up to the current day, with the illicit activities of looters and vandals leaving the most recent marks.

Numerous studies of the contents from this site give insight into the way these groups of people lived. It appears that each historic group to inhabit the cave used it as a temporary shelter during hunting expeditions. One group of inhabitants, the Virgin Anasazi, used it as a seasonal dwelling along with their dogs. They are believed to have dwelled at larger settlements along the Virgin River as well.

Research from the artifacts left behind by them, have given insights into the diets that they relied upon and the diseases that they may have suffered from. Evidence of ticks in coprolite samples suggest that they could have been subject to Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia. There is also research into how their diets may give insights into diabetes and other metabolic diseases.

Many of the inhabitants relied upon jackrabbits for food, and there are insights into the ways they prepared them, often roasting or quickly stewing them, while also extracting marrow from the bones. Because of the sparse meat on the carcasses, and few other viable protein sources, they resorted to several methods to get as much out of it as they could. They also relied upon wild seeds and cactus as food sources. Some groups farmed corn and beans nearby the cave. The nearest water source is miles away from the cave.

One of the most interesting studies of the contents of this cave centers on small fibrous pouches called quids. Quids have been found in many archeological sites, but they were thought to be simply wads of fiber that had been chewed by natives to extract nutrients from corn stalks, agave and other plants. Researchers found that there was tobacco inside some of the over 300 quids that were discovered at Antelope Cave. There are two types of wild tobacco that are known to grow on the Arizona Strip, coyote tobacco and wild desert tobacco. The possible uses for these tobacco containing quids ranges from ceremonial (nicotine can induce altered states of consciousness in large doses), hunger abatement, food, and in this case, pleasure. The researchers determined that, due to the construction materials (yucca), and the way they were scattered around the cave, that there was no ceremonial purpose and that they likely used them in the same way many people use chewing tobacco today.

Some may wonder why this is important. Perhaps they would say, “So what, they used tobacco just like we do” but the reality is that this adds to our store of scientific understanding. Understanding of our history can, and often does, lead to advancements in science and technology, leading to a standard of living that is far better than our ancestors could have dreamed of. But beyond that, it also teaches us a valuable lesson. That lesson is that we are merely temporary occupants of this place and the marks we leave on the land may one day be the subject of great wonder to our descendants (direct or otherwise). Those marks may constitute small windows into the past, freezing a snapshot of our identity in time. I wonder what they may think of our alcohol consumption and firearm use, what with all the discarded beer bottles and spent shells scattered across the area surrounding Colorado City and Hildale. Perhaps they will surmise that a great society of drunken war like individuals inhabited the place.


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