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April 23, 2006
Russell Cave is the only National Monument in Alabama. If you've been to some of the other attractions in this area, such as Cathedral Caverns or Sequoyah Caverns, you have seen larger caves then this one. Russell Cave is significant over these others as every time this cave was flooded, a layer of silt covered the previous artifacts. As such, this cave uniquely provides evidence of its inhabitants for almost 10,000 years.Prehistoric men lived a very savage life. They spent most of their time filling basic needs. One of these needs is a place of refuge, where they would be safe from weather and other predators in the wild.When they found the Russell Cave it must have seemed like Paradise. It faces east, so it would block out the cold northern winds, while still letting in the morning sunlight.Archaeologists have found remains of human civilization in this cave dating back 9000 years ago. Since the cave occasionally floods and silt deposits have been built up over the years, scientists can see the level of civilizations that lived here as they dig as the different levels.You can begin your tour of the cave at the museum and visitor center. This museum has a nice selection of artifacts found in the cave. The exhibits are broken down into the historic periods. The Paleo Indians are the first humans to set foot in Alabama with artifacts dating back to 8000 BC. The Archaic Indians were primitive hunters and gathers, who spent most of their lives searching for food. In the Woodland period, the Indians developed the bow and arrow, cooking instruments, and primitive tools. Finally, in the Mississippian period, tribes such as the Cherokees would have used the cave while traveling through this area.After seeing the museum, there is a short film (about 15 minutes) that describes the park. It tells about how the park was found and how it would have been used by the natives to the area. There are other films available on request if you are interested in seeing more about the Indians and how they lived before Europeans started settling this area.Finally, the main attraction in the park is the cave itself. The cave is really unimpressive overall if you just look at it from a geological perspective. Other caverns in the area eclipse it in size. Its significance is the artifacts found within its walls. Certainly other caverns were also used by Indians from as far back as 8000 BC, but this cave has been the best source of artifacts in the region.I recommend this attraction for all visitors to this area. I would especially recommend this attraction for anyone interested in Native American history or American history pre-colonization.Website: www.nps.gov/ruca.
From journal Dixieland Delight
by J. Stephen
July 25, 2005
For hundreds of generations, Russell Cave has drawn American Indians. The artifacts they left behind tell the story of the cave. It is difficult to make generalizations about how the cave was used over so long a period of time. During the ebb and flow of habitation some users seem to have been year-round family groups while others were nomadic hunting parties.
As archeologists dug down to the deepest artifacts, more than 30 feet below the cave's present floor, they traced the emergence of pottery more than 2,000 years ago, introduction of the bow and arrow, increasing sophistication of tools and weapons, and growing trade with other people for tools and ceremonial goods.
From journal Russell Cave National Monument, Alabama
Other than the boardwalk which leads to the cave, the only hiking opportunity in Russell Cave National Monument is a 1.2-mile loop trail through the oak-hickory forest above the cave. Parts of this trail are steep so we would classify it as moderate to strenuous. Points along the trail feature plants used for food, tools, and other everyday necessities by the cave's inhabitants.
Hikers are advised to stay on the trail and not take shortcuts. On the mountainside there are hidden dropoffs, sinkholes, and other natural hazards.
The exhibits in the small museum at the Visitors Center are definitely worth a close inspection. Of the thousands of southeast Archaic sites, this is one of the best preserved. The Archaic era, beginning at the tail end of the last ice age (about 8,000 B.C.) is when the basic foundation for American Indian culture was laid.
Archeological evidence indicates that the earliest users of Russell Cave were actually at the transitional stage between Paleo and Archaic. During the Paleo period early man depended to a great extent on hunting large animals. In other words, people we usually think of as primitive "Cave Men" once inhabited this spot. Some regard it as the oldest house in America.
Both the National Monument and the Visitors Center are open daily from 8am-5pm, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. Note that the Monument is in the Central Standard time zone, unlike nearby Chattanooga which follows Eastern Time.
Admission is free, courtesy of the American taxpayer.
The cavern has been found to be one of the more extensive cave systems in Alabama, with over 10 miles of currently known passageways. Entrance into cave passages, except on the walkways around the archeological exhibit, is allowed by permit only.
Most groups using the cave would probably have numbered 15 to 30. They were likely extended families. Various styles of spear and arrow points tell archeologists that it was inhabited by different bands over the centuries. Twenty-four burials have been found in the cave, ranging from an infant to a 40- to 50-year-old woman.
The inhabitants of Russell cave used the abundant resources of the land around them. The wildlife they hunted, except for the porcupine and the peccary - are still found in the area today: deer, turkey, black bear, turtle, raccoon squirrel, and other small animals. They took fish from the nearby Tennessee River. Their staples were nuts, acorns, roots, wild fruits, and seeds. They also did some primitive gardening, raising goosefoot, a small flowering plant with edible seeds.