Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
For hundreds of generations to follow, the cave continued to draw Indians. Over so long a time, it is difficult to generalize about how it was used. Since the first excavation here in 1953, it has been thought that the cave was used in winter by people who in warmer months moved to villages along the Tennessee River. But the evidence is not conclusive, and it seems likely that some groups used it as a permanent home, perhaps for years at a time. Others did use it as winter quarters, while for year-round nomads it was simply a convenient stopover. The archeological evidence does indicate that in the 1,000 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 is 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 artifacts they left behind tell the story of the cave: the ebb and flow of habitation, whether the users were family groups or hunting parties, what they wore, what they ate, the tools they used. As archeologists dug down to the deepest artifacts more than 30 feet below the cave's present floor, they traced the emergence of pottery before the time of Christ, the introduction of the bow and arrow, the increasing sophistication of tools and weapons. There was also evidence of growing trade with other peoples for tools and ceremonial goods.
The inhabitants of Russell Cave practiced what anthropologists call "forest efficiency," using all the resources of the land. The wildlife they hunted-except for the porcupine and the peccary-are still found in the area: deer, turkey, black bear, turtle, raccoon, squirrel, and other small animals. They took fish from the Tennessee River, and probably stored supplies of shellfish from the river in nearby streams. Nuts, acorns, roots, wild fruits, and seeds were staples, as were seeds from the goosefoot, a small flowering plant they raised in gardens.
Although times could be hard, especially during the winter, we should not think of these people as constantly struggling, living on the margin of existence. This was a good time for Native Americans in the Southeast. In small family groups they harvested rich food sources according to the season, fully exploiting their environment without destroying what sustained them.
This resource is based on the following source:
National Park Service. 1997. Russell Cave official map and guide. National Park Service. Unpaginated.This resource should be cited as:
National Park Service. 1997. Russell Cave official map and guide. National Park Service. Unpaginated. Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online. http://www.npwrc.usgs.govcaveinfo.htm (Version 22MAY98).