Alabama has 3,400 documented caves. The most famous of these is Russell Cave (now a national monument), the oldest rock shelter used regularly for a home in the eastern United States. Named for Thomas Russell, a veteran of the American Revolution who once owned the land above it, this limestone cave is located south of the Alabama-Tennessee border along the southern end of the Cumberland Plateau in northeastern Alabama. Russell Cave is about 210 ft (64 m) long, 107 ft (33 m) wide, and 26 ft (8 m) high.
The cave was inhabited during all Prehistoric time periods: Paleo, Archaic, Woodland and Mississippian. The artifacts found in this karst indicate intermittent human habitation for almost 9,000 years.
‘Karst’ describes a landscape that is principally formed by dissolving bedrock and is characterized by caves, sinkholes, springs, and underground streams. Karst is a hollow terrain much like a piece of Swiss cheese coated with a thin layer of soil. These interconnected cavities can range in size from tiny cracks to stadium sized rooms. Geologists consider Alabama’s northeast corner a significant ‘karst’ region.
Since the first excavation by the Tennessee Archeological Society in 1953, archeologists have thought that the cave was used in winter by people who in warmer months moved to villages along the Tennessee River. The cave mouth faces east, away from the cold north wind but letting in the morning sun. It would have been cool in the summer. Cool waters from the cave spring meeting with the warmer outside air often cause a fog to hover over the front of the cave. The archeological evidence indicates that in the years before European contact in the 16th century, the cave was used primarily as a hunting camp.
Most groups inhabiting the cave would probably have numbered no more than 15 to 30–their size limited by the need for mobility and by how many people the land could sustain. They were likely extended families or several related families. Certainly some groups would have used the cave year after year, but varying styles of spear and arrow points tell us that it was inhabited by different bands. Nine burials have been found in the cave, ranging from an infant to a 40-50-year-old woman.
From the remains it appears that these people were short and muscular. In appearance they probably resembled the peoples Europeans first encountered in the 16th century.
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 did leave were found very close to the surface.
Russell Cave National Monument constitutes only part of the cavern that was discovered in 1953. The national monument was established in 1961 on 310 acres of land donated to the people of America by the National Geographic Society.
related post: “I heard rumors of the blind fish”