Cave offers window to the past

Pure Nebraska
Published: Apr. 5, 2023 at 11:44 AM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - During a visit to Ash Hollow State Historical Park, you can see a cave that’s really more of a rock overhang, where human habitation dates back thousands of years.

Park superintendent Tamara Cooper visited with us about the unique attraction. “This is a natural cave, where water carved out an overhang,” Cooper said. “There are several overhangs like this in the area, and this is one of them. My knowledge so far is, this is the only one that has been excavated, and it was excavated in 1934. By 1964, it was put on the National Register of Historic Places. It was a processing site.”

A chart near where people can view the cave, describes some of the evidence of human habitation found during excavation. “The first people that inhabited the cave did so periodically,” Cooper said. “Nobody ever lived here permanently. We can trace it back to the Dismal River people who are ancestors of the Plains Apache. What happened was, they would go on a buffalo kill. They needed a place to process the animals. This is one place where they would do it. It offered protection for a period of time. It was a place where they could stay out of the elements. Of course, there is a spring here in Ash Hollow they could use for water. They would come and spend months at a time processing the buffalo.”

An exhibit in the cave viewing area highlights the expanse of time when people used the overhang. “You can literally see change over time with humans,” Cooper said. “We start out with rudimentary tools. Eventually you can see that we are getting to the point where they are starting to store food. Later you see evidence of decorated pots to store food in, and you can see jewelry being made where beads are being dyed and colored.”

Experts believe humans may have been using the cave as far back as 10,000 years. “We do know that by the time the Oregon Trail came through, starting in the 1830′s with the first fur trappers, this was almost totally filled in. Several roasting pits were found on top of the ridgelines, so archeologists knew there had to be a processing site somewhere close. So, they found this, and excavated it.”

When you come to see the cave, you can look at it through a glass barrier, that helps keep people from damaging the cave itself. “Visitors can call and schedule a tour if you’d like someone to further explain what you are seeing, or you can just come through the viewing area, and read the information on the exhibits.” Cooper said. “There are numerous hiking trails that lead down to the cave area. There are some that lead down to the pond area, which is the lower springs located in the park. Of course, you can always go up to the visitors center to learn more.”