Hidden Cave, Nevada

'Indoor Excavation'
Excavations at Hidden Cave

During the 1978 and 1979 field seasons, David Hurst Thomas and a stalwart crew were dedicated to the excavation of this Nevada cave occupied in the late Archaic period -- from about 2000 BC to AD 0. The team discovered that the relatively inhospitable cave was used for temporary housing -- a place store food and cache tools and other materials. Archaeologists have excavated parts of Hidden Cave since the 1920s and have found literally thousands of artifacts, evidence of food, and dozens of coprolites (desiccated human feces). This latter data showed that Archaic people were eating pinion nuts, bulrush seeds and fish. These data and evidence of different kinds of pollen found in the cave indicate that it was used during all seasons of the year.

Map of Hidden Cave

Hidden Cave presides over central Nevada's now-arid Carson Desert. Gouged out about 21,000 years ago by the waves of rising Pleistocene Lake Lahontan, Hidden Cave is sealed beneath the cemented surface gravels of the Stillwater Range. The cavern floor was alternatively flooded and exposed until shortly after 10,000 B.C. During relatively brief intervals since then, American Indians crawled Hidden Cave, leaving behind a well-stratified, well-preserved record of their presence. Natural and cultural deposits continued to accumulate inside until the cave entrance was virtually sealed off by a debris cone. Hidden Cave was rediscovered in the 1920s, and teams of archaeologists excavated there in the 1940s, 1950s, and late 1970s.

The dust and darkness inside Hidden Cave created abysmal working conditions for Archaic people and archaeologists alike. Because nobody could actually have lived inside the cave, it seems clear that the rich artifact assemblage buried inside must have been deliberately stored away, carefully cached for the future rather than discarded as garbage. Hidden Cave provides important, if unusual clues about Desert Archaic lifeways.


"Yup, this is the cave I found back in 1927. No doubt about it."

We had been excavating at Hidden Cave for nearly two summers, and I wanted to believe him. When Dick Wisenhunt appeared at our dig -- claiming to be the first white man ever to crawl into Hidden Cave -- you just had to listen.

His story rang true. Mr. Wisenhunt had grown up in Nevada's Carson Desert, on a ranch not far from Hidden Cave (just west of where the "Lazy B" brothel stands today). A well-known local legend told of a stage holdup in this area. Once caught, the thief confessed to the robbery and claimed that he'd hidden the money in a nearby cave. The holdup story lured four youths, including Dick Wisenhunt, to the cave-riddled hillside. Soon tired of their unsuccessful treasure hunt, the boys started a rock fight. Rocks were flying thick and fast when somebody took cover behind a large boulder. Feeling cold air leaking from the base of the rock, he saw a small dark cleft leading underground. Although wanting to explore further, they were afraid to crawl in "because of the wildcats." So they rocked up the opening and waited months before returning.

Summoning up their courage, the young explorers eventually returned to dig their way into the small cave opening. So difficult was this first entry that Wisenhunt knew he was the first in recent times to crawl into the crevice. Once inside, they lit up torches -- finding hundreds of ancient Indian artifacts scattered across the cave's huge, flat floor. But the fumes and dust soon drove them back outside. Pledging one another to secrecy, they once again piled rocks across the entrance. For years, the cave was their secret hideout.

The cave was rediscovered by a guano miners named McRiley sometime in the 1930s. Bat feces (guano) was in great demand for fertilizer and at one point, McRiley wanted to mail a particularly rich sample from the near Fallon Post Office. Unable to address the package himself, he asked the postmaster for help and, in the course of conversation, McRiley commented that digging inside the cave would go much quicker "if it weren't for all that Indian junk."

Then as now, Fallon is a very small town, and archaeologists M.R. Harrington and S.M. Wheeler eventually got wind of McRiley's cave. In 1935, they drove out to take a look. But for all their skittering over the steep hillsides, they couldn't find the rocked-in entrance. After hours of examining promising ledges, an exasperated Harrington allegedly commented, "This is certainly one hidden cave!" -- and the name stuck.

Harrington and Wheeler finally located the tiny opening and squirmed in. Blinded by the cave's black interior, they flicked on their flashlights -- to see a huge underground room the size of a modern gymnasium. Poking about the guano miner's diggings, they found this "hidden cave" to be filled with deep stratified deposits, mostly lakeside sediments and slopewash. Ancient artifacts of all descriptions, including basketry, dart shafts with shiny stone points, carved wooden implements, and well-preserved leather fragments, protruded everywhere. The archaeological potential was obvious.

Over the next half century, three teams of archaeologists would return to tackle the dust and darkness of Hidden Cave.

Digging at Hidden Cave

In 1940, the Nevada Highway Department sponsored excavations by S. M. and Georgia Wheeler. Although excited by their discoveries, their fieldnotes complained bitterly about working conditions inside the pitch-black cave. They lit up the place with carbide lights and tried breathing through a variety of masks and moistened bandanas. But nothing bested the choking dust and darkness.

Tight work space

A decade later, Gordon Grosscup and Norman Linnaeus Roust, two students from the University of California (Berkeley), took up excavations at Hidden Cave. Over a two-month span, they recovered hundreds of artifacts and excellent samples of coprolites (desiccated human feces), animal bones, and vegetal remains. Knowing the dangers of breathing bat guano, they wore a succession of dust masks, air filters, and moistened cloths. But their 1951 fieldnotes record that "none of these proved satisfactory and until some more capable experimenters produce the answer, the problem will remain annoyingly unsolved."

As it turned out, I was that experimenter. Having guided my students through Hidden Cave in the 1960s and '70s, I was anxious to see what, if anything, remained unexcavated. Exploring with a weak flashlight, I could see that -- despite decades of vandalism and illegal relic collecting -- large sections of intact cave deposits still remained untouched.

During the summers of 1978 and 1979, we took another crack at Hidden Cave. Sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History, my team spent weeks trying to solve logistical difficulties of digging indoors. After installing generators, we experimented with several lighting schemes, finally settling on a combination of fluorescent and quartz-halogen aircraft landing lights. At last, excavators could work in artificial daylight everywhere inside the cave.

But like our predecessors, we found the greatest problem to be the suffocating dust clouds raised by trampling feet. Surgical masks protected our lungs, but nobody could see because once stirred up, the dust particles stayed airborne for hours. We finally built a network of wooden walkways to keep busy feet off the fine-grained silts. We also drilled through the cave breccia to position a 24-inch electric blower that circulated fresh air throughout Hidden Cave. Although colleagues ribbed me about "air conditioning" our site, the ventilator kept the cave sufficiently dustfree during working hours.

Who Would Live Inside Hidden Cave?

Digging inside Hidden Cave was no picnic, as three generations of archaeologists can readily attest. But the hassles of working inside this dark dusty cave taught us some valuable lessons about how the site must have been used in the ancient past.

Our historical and geological studies confirm that from 2000 B.C. to about A.D. 1 -- the major human usage of the site -- the entrance to Hidden Cave was a narrow tunnel, just like that described by Dick Wisenhunt when he rediscovered the site seventy years ago. Then as now, light barely penetrated the central alcove. Anyone crawling the 15 feet inside the cave is engulfed by disorienting darkness. And breathing inside Hidden Cave has always been difficult -- a condition compounded when torches or fires were used to light up the cave. For both archaeologists and ancients, Hidden Cave was a very difficult place.

We know from ethnographic studies that Archaic-style people generally live in places carefully selected to satisfy the minimal conditions of human life -- accessible food, water, firewood, and fresh air, relatively level ground for working and sleeping, adequate shelter from the elements, and minimally-acceptable levels of heat and light. We knew from long experience that Hidden Cave comes up short on all counts -- and the archaeological excavations confirmed this.

Despite the thousands of artifacts recovered, we were more impressed with what was not at Hidden Cave: no ash lenses from cooking fires, virtually no flintknapping debris from making and repairing stone tools, hardly any food leftovers. In fact, the characteristic household debris found in most Archaic-style habitation sites were conspicuously absent from Hidden Cave.

So we had learned something: whatever else Native American people may have done inside Hidden Cave, they obviously didn't live there.

Tool Caches: What Do They Mean?

Despite the near absence of habitation debris, people had obviously visited Hidden Cave for thousands of years. The archaeological strata are riddled with dozens of ancient caches, storage pits dug into the cave floor. Although most had been emptied of their contents long ago, a few pits still contained the artifacts inside. These unretrieved valuables tell us a great deal about those who once visited Hidden Cave.

Lewis Binford has made the useful distinction between "active" and "passive" artifacts. An active tool is one that is currently and regularly involved in everyday activities. "Active" artifacts -- manufactured, used, repaired, and eventually discarded -- turn up in ancient garbage heaps throughout the world. But tools become passive whenever they are out of synch with daily reality. Our attics and garages contains dozens of "passive" artifacts -- skis last used in February, snow tires removed in the spring, the fly rod ready for opening day, the stadium blanket from last fall's football season, a plastic Christmas tree. Passive gear is only seasonally relevant. During the off-season, it must be stored away and cared for -- always ready to be upgraded to active duty.

So too with the tools of the desert forager. Flat, abrasive grinding stones are used to process hulled crops such as pi¤on pine nuts. But pi¤on can be harvested only in the fall, so bulky grinding stones are usually left behind in distant pi¤on groves, ready for the next fall's harvest. These grinding stones are passive for ten months every year. High desert squirrels and chipmunks hibernate during the winter, so the deadfall snares used to capture them become passive for several months a year. The same is true of fishing gear, duck decoys, and weapons for upland hunting. In general, the more seasonally variable the environment, the more specific the tool kit. The more a group moves around throughout the year, the greater the proportion of the artifact assemblage that passes between active and passive states.

The Hidden Cave excavations turned up thousands of passive, ready-to-go artifacts left behind in well-concealed cache pits. Stone projectile points (dart tips and arrowheads), for instance, are common finds in archaeological sites of the American West. But archaeologists usually find fragments -- often hunting losses or points broken beyond repair. But at Hidden Cave, more than 80 percent of the projectile points were unbroken and fully serviceable. More than one-third had been resharpened in anticipation of future use. These projectile points were not discarded garbage; they are passive artifacts ready to be retrieved when the time was right.

Like an attic, Hidden Cave was a safe place to keep valuables -- secure yet not underfoot.

Food Caches: How Do They Work?

Hidden Cave contained more than passive artifacts. The site was also something like a basement pantry, where canned goods, preserves, and other surplus food items were stocked away.

These food caches were part of a much larger survival strategy. We think that these ancient desert people were fairly mobile, timing their movements with the rhythms of the seasons: fish spawn in the spring (so fishing gear is removed from storage and taken streamside); hard-shelled seeds ripen in the summer (so seed-processing technology is taken to the lowlands), acorns and pi¤on nuts are abundant in the fall (requiring carefully timed treks into far-away foothills). Taken together, this Archaic lifeway played out for thousands of years across the North American desert.

But things rarely meshed that smoothly. What happens, for instance, when all the best resources mature at the same time, say during the springtime, with little available during summer and fall? An obvious way to defuse this feast-or-famine problem is to get what you can when things are good, storing (caching) what you don't need immediately to use later on. In a way, the food cache is like a tool cache -- relegating a temporarily expendable food surplus into a "passive" state until needed.

Hidden Cave suggests how this strategy may have worked in the past. Intact food caches per se were relatively rare inside the cave -- no great surprise, given their obvious importance for desert survival. But we have indirect evidence showing the importance of caching food to the Hidden Cave visitors.

Everyone who dug at Hidden Cave encountered coprolites (literally "food stones," but in this context meaning dried up human feces). Coprolites are valuable clues about ancient diet -- just about the only direct way of knowing what people actually ate. Most of the coprolites found at Hidden Cave contained the undigested remains of a single, simple meal -- pi¤on nut hulls, small fish bones, or maybe bulrush. Our western concept of a "balanced diet" seems to have been of little concern to the people of Hidden Cave. They ate whatever food was immediately at hand.

But one Hidden Cave coprolite contained both cattail pollen and charred bulrush seeds. This might not seem like a big deal, until you remember that cattail pollen is available only in mid-summer, and mature bulrush fruits can be harvested only six weeks later. This temporal inconsistency means that one (or both) resources must have been stored (cached) for future consumption. Clearly, at least one Archaic-style forager had artificially lengthened the availability of a key resource -- by storing the surplus away -- perhaps inside Hidden Cave, but certainly not far away.

Another coprolite told a rather different story. It contained pieces of pi¤on nut hull, some bulrush seeds, crushed fish bone, and unidentified seed parts. Once again, this might seem to be pretty paultry evidence, until you remember what we know about the various plant and animal communities involved. We know that pi¤on and bulrush both ripen in the fall -- but not in the same place. Bulrushes grow only in marshy desert lowlands (and this habitat is -- and was -- found directly downslope from Hidden Cave). But no pine trees grow anywhere Hidden Cave -- and they never have. The pi¤on pine woodland has always been at least several hours' walk -- maybe twenty miles (30 kilometers) or so -- away from Hidden Cave (and this is a very conservative estimate). So this unlovely little coprolite from Hidden Cave (containing both pi¤on and bulrush) clearly indicates that somebody ate both food items in the same day three thousand years ago. This meal could not have occurred without some fairly serious planning beforehand.

The coprolite evidence thus demonstrates that storage caches and long-distance transport were deliberate strategies that helped the Archaic-style foragers at Hidden Cave persevere in one of the world's harshest environments.

The Fallacy of the Typical Site

The archaeology of Hidden Cave illustrates a number of strategies employed by ancient desert dwellers to survive in their dynamic, if sometimes hostile environment. But let's not generalize these results too far: we shouldn't take Hidden Cave as somehow "typical" of Desert Archaic sites in general. Taking something as "typical" -- be it an artifact or an entire site -- is a dangerous thing to do, particularly when dealing with the kind of non-sedentary lifestyle characteristic of many Archaic people.

To see why, look at the diagram illustrating the seasonal round of the 19th-century Numa (Western Shoshone and Northern Paiute) people, who lived -- and still live -- not far from Hidden Cave. Numic people survived by collecting seasonally ripening plant foods, supplemented to some degree by hunting. Because they did not grow crops -- and hence were not tethered to agricultural fields -- these people traveled from one microenvironment to another, harvesting various wild resources as they became seasonally available.

Nuts of the pi¤on tree, a Shoshonean staple, ripened in the late fall and often provided enough food for the winter. Pi¤on nuts are bulky resources, so Numic people generally moved their camps into the foothills, to avoid carrying heavy lots across long distances. Buffalo berries and currants also became available in the low foothills about this time. As Indian ricegrass seeds ripened during the early summer, camp was moved from the pi¤on forest to the flat valley floor. Many other local foods were utilized in the same cyclical fashion, involving critical decisions about whether to transport the food to camp, or move the camp to where the food was being harvested.

Look at the pattern for the Reese River Valley, near the top of the map. The numbered triangles are winter villages, inhabited seasonally to exploit the ripening pi¤on nuts. The lettered, lowland localities were established in the summer for gathering seeds and roots and to hunt rabbits and occasionally antelope. Satellite sites were established for ceremonial purposes, and also in the upland areas to gather berries and hunt bighorn sheep. This figure demonstrates the only a fraction of the intricate and complex movements and decisions involved in some Archaic-style lifeways.

This map also illustrates the fallacy of the typical site. Suppose that an archaeologist set out to locate and excavate just one of these Western Shoshone sites. Which one to choose? Winter village sites are attractive because they represent the lengthiest occupation and probably contain remains of a great variety of activities. If you excavated a pi¤on-gathering camp, you would probably reconstruct a lifeway something like this:

This economy was based on harvesting pi¤on nuts.
This camp contained between one and two dozen people.
The men who lived there made lots of stone tools and repaired their weapons.
The women spent a great deal of time collecting pi¤on nuts and grinding them into meal, sewing hide clothing, and making basketry.

All these inferences are quite likely, and corroborated by an enormous amount of ethnographic information available about Numic lifeways. Because there are strong connections between the ethnographic and archaeological records in this part of the world, you are probably correct, based on what you excavated.

But suppose that I decided to excavate a fandango site (or "festival," denoted by "F" on Steward's map). My reconstruction would suggest a grouping of two hundred to three hundred people who subsisted on communal hunting of jackrabbit and antelope, and who spent a great deal of time dancing, gambling, and "living off the fat of the land." And, based on what we know about Numic lifeways, I would be correct as well.

In other words, you would have reconstructed a society comprised of small social groupings (extended families), whereas I would have seen a large aggregation of people concerned with rite, ritual, and feasting. These are very different archaeological reconstructions, but in truth, both kinds of sites were produced during the course of a single year, as part of the seasonal round of the Numic people.

The difficulty is clear: No matter which site is selected, a great deal will be missed. No single Numic site is sufficient to demonstrate the total range of cultural variability. One cannot just dig here or there, because there is no typical site -- and Hidden Cave is not typical either.

The American Archaic: What is It?

Paleoindian lifeways were replaced throughout North America by people of the Archaic tradition. This term "Archaic" has assumed a special meaning in American archaeology, referring to the ecological adaptations that once flourished across large parts of native North America, from the far west (the Great Basin, California, and the Pacific Northwest), through the Great Plains, in the Northeast, and across the Deep South. Although the Archaic adaptation spans 10,000 years and a continent, certain key characteristics tie them all together.

By Archaic, archaeologists basically mean those hunting-gathering-fishing people who are not Paleoindians. The term was initially so used during the 1930s to designate a preceramic, preagricultural culture discovered in New York State. The absence of pottery was considered to be the hallmark of this cultural period.

Over the years, as archaeologists expanded their excavations, they came to realize that broadly similar "Archaic" materials could be found throughout North America. Today, the term Archaic has taken on two rather different meanings.

In "Archaic" of eastern North America defines a specific period of time: after the initial Paleoindian occupation, but prior to the so-called "Woodland" cultures (which are generally distinguished by ceramics, mound building, and agriculture).

But throughout much of western and northern North America -- in places where Woodland adaptations did not develop -- the term "Archaic" refers to a more generalized, non-agricultural lifestyle (rather than a specific period of time). In ancient California, the Northwest coast, and the Intermountain West, such "Archaic" lifeways lasted perhaps 10,000 years -- well into the period of initial European contact -- never relying on agriculture in any meaningful way. Several subsequent chapters discuss such long-term Archaic adaptations - at the Head-Smashed-In buffalo jump (Alberta), Cape Krusenstern (Alaska), the Big Horn Medicine Wheel (Wyoming), and Ozette village (Washington State).

There is every reason to believe that Indians of the Archaic period descended directly from Paleoindian ancestors. But the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna and the spread of the modern deciduous forest produced such significant environmental changes that Archaic people developed rather different lifestyles from their Paleoindian predecessors.

As Archaic people spread out, they learned to live off the land, and they prospered. Some Archaic groups, particularly those in high latitudes, depended heavily on hunting for their livelihood. Others, such as the Northwest Coast groups, became experts at fishing. Some, like the Desert Archaic people of Hidden Cave, relied on seasonal harvests of wild plants, while Native Americans in the Eastern Woodlands would eventually discard their Archaic lifeway in favor of farming. Each tradition of the Archaic is adapted to its particular corner of America.

A Second Harvest?

For thousands of years, people stored implements and foodstuffs inside Hidden Cave. But how long does it take to store a few seeds and stash some tools? Presumably, not very long. When then, you might ask, are the Hidden Cave deposits littered with ancient coprolites? Why should so many obey the call of nature, so often, in the few moments they tarried inside the cave?

To complicate matters further, the 1951 excavators excavated what they termed an "aboriginal latrine" -- a pit five feet (1.6 meters) in diameter, carefully lined with large rocks transported inside, one by one, from the Eetza Mountain hillside. Inside this pit were hundreds, if not thousands, of dried up human coprolites. Why would people four thousand years ago use a "latrine?" Does it really make sense for people to climb halfway up Eetza Mountain to gather the rocks and build a latrine -- just so they could defecate indoors?

Archaeologist Robert F. Heizer believed that people at Hidden Cave and elsewhere in the Desert West may have deliberately created such "latrines" as yet another survival strategy -- a way of storing undigested seeds for times of extreme famine. The so-called second harvest hypothesis is based on the first-hand early accounts of explorers, missionaries and military men traveling through Baja California. One such report, by Father Johann Jakob Baegert described his 1771 experiences this way:

The pitahayas [cactus] contain a great many small seeds, resembling grains of powder, which for reasons unknown to me are not consumed in the stomach but passed in a undigested state... The Indians collect all excrement during the season of the pitahayas, pick out these seeds from it, roast, grind, and eat them with much joking. This procedure is call by the Spaniards the after or second harvest!...It was difficult for me, indeed, to give credit to such reports until I had repeatedly witnessed this procedure... They will not give it up.

"Second harvesting" graphically displays how Archaic-style foragers -- at least those living in Baja -- embed one survival strategy within another. A hunter, for instance, might pick up a few cobbles suitable for flintknapping on his way back from a hunting trip, knowing that someday he could fashion some tools without requiring a special trip to the quarry. A broken stone spearpoint might be kept, handy for reworking into something smaller should suitable raw materials become scarce. Kindling might be tucked away inside crevice or rock shelter, providing dry firewood for an emergency -- when everything else is too wet to burn. Second harvesting may explain the latrine found inside Hidden Cave.

Further Visiting

HIDDEN CAVE (Fallon, NV); 12 mi (19 km) is today part of the Grimes Point Archaeological Area. The Churchill County Museum and the Bureau of Land Management co-sponsored guided expeditions inside Hidden Cave. By the way, nobody has to crawl their way inside anymore. Thanks to foresighted Bureau of Land Management engineers, you barely have to bend over to get inside. Visitors can also take a self-guided hike along a petroglyph trail outside Hidden Cave.

Further Reading

Heizer, Robert F.
1967. Analysis of human coprolites from a dry Nevada cave. University of California Archaeological Survey Reports, no. 70, pp. 1-20.

Heizer, Robert F., and Lewis K. Napton
1970. Archaeology and the prehistoric Great Basin lacustrine subsistence regime as seen from Lovelock Cave, Nevada. Contributions of the University of California Archaeological Research Facility, no. 10.

Janetski, Joel, and David B. Madsen
1990. Wetland Adaptations in the Great Basin. Museum of Peoples and Cultures Occasional Papers No. 1. Provo: Brigham Young University.

Thomas, David Hurst
1985. The archaeology of Hidden Cave, Nevada. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, vol. 61, part 1, pp. 1-430.