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Russell Cave

National Monument


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Russell Cave National Monument, Alabama

Thousands of years ago nomadic bands of Indians, hunting in the vicinity, stumbled upon Russell Cave in the hill country of northern Alabama. We know little about them except that they were few in number, probably less than 15 or 20, and that the only durable possessions they carried with them were a handful of chipped flint points with which they tipped their short hunting spears. These few possessions were found 12 feet below the present floor of the cave.

This evidence, supported by charcoal from their campfires, tells us that about 9,000 years ago, long before the rise of the first true civilizations of Egypt and the Near East, these Archaic Period Indians first began to occupy Russell Cave. They lived there only during the autumn and winter seasons, maintaining their primitive existence by hunting game and gathering wild plants. Agriculture was probably known, but little used by the Indians of the Archaic Period.

The cave was a great boon to these Indians because it provided ready protection from the elements. This freed them from the need to build a shelter in the forest and gave them more time to find food. Successive bands of hunters with their women and children took shelter in this cave until A.D. 1000. The records of their seasonal occupations, including several burials of adults and children, have been uncovered by archeological digs. The charcoal from their fires, the bones of the animals they ate, the tools they fashioned from animal bones, their spear and arrow points, and their broken pottery had accumulated layer upon layer as the years, the thousands of years, passed.

When the last occupants departed, a thousand years after the birth of Christ, Russell Cave held beneath its surface the record of at least 9,000 years of human life upon this continent.

The first of these relics were not discovered until 1953 when four members of the Tennessee Archeological Society began digging in the cave. As they dug deeper, they realized that the importance of their find demanded more intensive efforts than they could give. They then discussed their discovery with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., which conducted three seasons of archeological explorations in close cooperation with the National Geographic Society. Further excavations were carried out in 1962 by the National Park Service. From all this work has come our knowledge of the Indian occupations of Russell Cave.

About 9,000 years ago, some 4,000 years before the Egyptians built their Great Pyramid, the first Indians made campfires in Russell Cave. They could not have lived there earlier, because a stream of water filled the whole cavern until a great rockfall from the roof shunted the stream to one side and raised the floor of the cave well above its waters.

The first party of cave dwellers camped on the irregular floor of rock slabs. Archeologists have been able to date the arrival of these people at some time between 6550 and 6145 B.C. by measuring the radioactive carbon remaining in the charcoal of their fires. Russell Cave was a seasonal haven for these early forest-dwelling Indians. They survived by hunting and gathering wild plants in the great hardwood forests of the region. After they had depleted the supply of animals and edible plants in one area, they would move on to another section of the forest.

Probably a number of related families used the cave as a place of shelter and safety mostly in the autumn and winter. The relative warmth of the cave probably prevented the stream from freezing and thus they had a constant supply of water. The forest bore a rich crop of nuts that must have been an important source of food during the worst winter months when game in this mountain-valley country was scarce. In spring and summer, small bands - several families - probably camped along the shore of the Tennessee River only a few miles from the cave. Fish, birds, and small mammals could be obtained in the river environment.

Studies in historical geology and paleobotany have shown that the plant and animal life of the Eastern Forest Region remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years, until European settlers felled the trees for lumber and opened up extensive acreages for subsistence and commercial farming.

ARCHAIC PERIOD (7000 to 1000 B.C.)
The groups of Indians who stayed at Russell Cave from 7000 to 1000 B.C. continued to live by hunting and gathering wild plants. Deer was most commonly hunted, but turkey was also a favorite and easier to kill. Other quarry were squirrel, raccoon, rabbit, gray fox, skunk, and bobcat. Porcupine bones, no longer found this far south, appear in the digs at the earliest occupational levels. Turtles, fish, and shellfish also were eaten.

These early cave dwellers wasted very little of their game. Flesh was roasted, or stewed in containers of bark or skin. Water was heated by dropping hot rocks into it. Hides were made into clothes for protection from rain, snow, and cold. Bones were made into tools of several kinds.

During the autumn and winter, when the cave was occupied, plant foods such as fruits and berries were scarce or unavailable. Nuts and seeds became the staple fare.

A short spear, tipped with a stone point and propelled by an atlatl, or throwing stick, was the chief weapon of these hunters. They chipped the points from chert, which occurs as hard nodules and veins in the limestone near the cave. The many chips dug up indicates that the Indian men fashioned the sharp, hard projectile points in the cave.

The few tools they used reflect the limited needs of these people and the necessity for their household goods to be portable. The men chipped the sharp, flinty stone chert into scrapers and knives. They turned bones into awls and needles, which suggests they worked hides into items of clothing. They also made pieces of bone into fishhooks. No ornaments have been found in these deposits.

The Indians probably made other articles that the soil has not preserved. Basketry and items of wood and hide have long since disappeared. One piece of evidence pointing to the use of perishable material was the discovery of impressions of cane matting on a clay "floor" deep in the Archaic deposits.

Occasionally the Indians buried members of their family inside the cave. Several burials of adults and children have been found in shallow pits scooped out of the cave floor. No artifacts were found with these burials.

Some scraps of evidence hint that during the last 3,000 years of this long Archaic Period, when the cave may have been less frequently occupied, these Indians of the Tennessee Valley relied on the food resources of the river for their chief source of sustenance. But in most other respects, the Russell Cave Indians maintained the same way of life unchanged.

WOODLAND PERIOD (1000 B.C. to A.D. 600)
Archeological excavations reveal that, beginning about 1000 B.C., the implements of the Indians using Russell Cave underwent a dramatic change. Pottery appears for the first time, and in quantity. Smaller weapon points suggest that the bow and arrow had replaced the earlier throwing stick. Bone tools were more finely finished, and there was a variety of bone and shell ornaments.

These changes, widespread at this time among the Indian groups of the eastern United States, mark the beginning of the Woodland Period of Indian culture. It was during this period that burial mounds were first built, population increased, and trade of numerous items became important.

The richer and more complex lifestyles indicate that the Woodland Period Indians had more time for activities not directly concerned with staying alive. Probably a stable and more abundant economy based on agriculture supported their culture. The mounds are also a sign that the Indians in the region of Russell Cave had increased in numbers and that their culture had matured to the point of having political and religious institutions. These must have been well developed and in strong control of the people - sufficient control to keep them at work for long periods building the mounds.

In this period small groups of Indians used Russell Cave only as a winter hunting camp. When they left the cave in the spring they probably joined other groups at a summer village that was larger than those of the Archaic Period.

The basis for cultural subdivisions within the Wood land Period are the changes in the shape and style of artifacts at Russell Cave. For example,the early pottery of this period has surfaces decorated with fabric impressions. The later pottery is decorated with impressions made by wooden paddles that were carved into a variety of designs. The shapes of arrowpoints also changed during the period.

From archeological evidence we know that shortly after the close of the Woodland Period (A.D. 500) Indians made less and less use of Russell Cave. Occasionally small parties, probably hunters, left a scattering of objects that differed from those of the Woodland Period occupants. They came from permanent villages built near the rich river bottomlands, and their fields yielded bountiful crops of corn and other plants. They were the Mound Builders of the Mississippi Period.

Centuries later, the Cherokee Indians occupied this part of the Tennessee Valley. They, and the European settlers who followed them, made little use of the cave. The few objects they left were found very close to the surface.


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The General park map handed out at the visitor center is available on the park's map webpage.

For information about topographic maps, geologic maps, and geologic data sets, please see the geologic maps page.

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A geology photo album for this park can be found here.

For information on other photo collections featuring National Park geology, please see the Image Sources page.

books, videos, cds subheading

Currently, we do not have a listing for a park-specific geoscience book. The park's geology may be described in regional or state geology texts.

Please visit the Geology Books and Media webpage for additional sources such as text books, theme books, CD ROMs, and technical reports.

Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments & Seashores.
Lillie, Robert J., 2005.
W.W. Norton and Company.
ISBN 0-393-92407-6
9" x 10.75", paperback, 550 pages, full color throughout

The spectacular geology in our national parks provides the answers to many questions about the Earth. The answers can be appreciated through plate tectonics, an exciting way to understand the ongoing natural processes that sculpt our landscape. Parks and Plates is a visual and scientific voyage of discovery!

Ordering from your National Park Cooperative Associations' bookstores helps to support programs in the parks. Please visit the bookstore locator for park books and much more.

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For information about permits that are required for conducting geologic research activities in National Parks, see the Permits Information page.

The NPS maintains a searchable data base of research needs that have been identified by parks.

A bibliography of geologic references is being prepared for each park through the Geologic Resources Evaluation Program (GRE). Please see the GRE website for more information and contacts.

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NPS Geology and Soils Partners

NRCS logoAssociation of American State Geologists
NRCS logoGeological Society of America
NRCS logoNatural Resource Conservation Service - Soils
USGS logo U.S. Geological Survey

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Currently, we do not have a listing for any park-specific geology education programs or activities.

For resources and information on teaching geology using National Park examples, see the Students & Teachers pages.
updated on 01/04/2005  I   http://www.nature.nps.gov/Geology/parks/ruca/index.cfm   I  Email: Webmaster
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