Roughly seven miles east of Fallon, Hidden Cave is open for tours on the second & fourth Saturday each month. Participants gather at the Churchill County Museum, view a short video highlighting the history of the local area, Hidden Cave in particular and then caravan to the cave. The tour, led by a BLM guide from the Carson City office, begins with a short hike up the hillside. A brief stop at a rock covered with petroglyphs prompts a discussion about them. The 'glyph seen here is an example of the more recent representative style (1,000 years old) as opposed to the older abstract styles consisting of lines or geometric shapes (up to 5,000 years old)
Further along the trail, we see evidence that this area was at one time
under water. Tufa covers the roof of a shallow cave attesting to this.
Tufa (calcium carbonate) was formed when hot spring's water combined with
the cooler lake water. The calcium carbonate precipitates forming tufa,
the whitish fluffy looking rock above the BLM guides head. This particular
patch of tufa was formed 15,000 years ago while 500 feet below the surface
of the then 8,700 square mile Lake Lahontan.
Hidden Cave was formed some 18,000 years through the pounding wave action
of the shrinking Lake Lahontan. Since its formation, it slowly filled with
sediment to a depth of about eight feet. When "discovered" in 1939, generations
of bats had taken roost leaving feet of guano on the cave floor. To this
day, the scent of ammonia still lingers. The entrance to the cave is quite
small requiring some "duck walking" before you can stand erect once inside.
Various archeological excavations have determined that the cave has been used by humans, the first some 3,700 years ago. At this level, many examples of the atlatl were found. An atlatl is a primitive "spear thrower". It is used to increase leverage of a thrown spear resulting in distances twice that of a spear thrown without the device. It was state of the art 4,000 years ago during the Archaic Period and was the precursor of the bow and arrow. The surrounding area was much different from what is seen today. Rather than desert, lakes and marshes dotted the land. Plants and grasses provided material for baskets and nets, probably used to store grain and catch fish. Antelope and Bighorn sheep grazed nearby, providing meat.
For some reason, the cave was abandoned and remained so for 2,000 years. Perhaps the climate had changed enough by then that the shrinking Lake Lahontan had left the cave too far from the shoreline. Then, 1,700 years ago, the cave was discovered again. Caches of tools, presumed to have been used for gathering roots and cutting grasses and reeds were found during excavations. Also found were caches of coprolite (dried fecal matter). This proved extremely valuable in gathering information on the diet, nutrition and general health of those who used cave. Interestingly, hormones present in the coprolite indicate that it was females who utilized the cave to relieve themselves. Why this was done is open to conjecture however one theory gathering credence is the Second Harvest. [For readers with weak stomachs - skip the rest of this paragraph.] During the periods of drought, food plants and animals would be in short supply. Starvation was a real possibility. The Second Harvest theory holds that seeds are not digested as they pass through the human digestive tract. When bad years occurred, the seeds could be picked out of the fecal matter, ground into flour and then baked. In times of starvation, does the source of the food really matter...Especially if it's the only food available?
The excavation is marked with small white tags indicating the age of the different layers of sediment. A boardwalk allows visitors to move freely about the cave without stirring up too much guano based dust which would make breathing difficult.
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