Five thousand years ago the place now called Fallon, Nevada, was beneath the waters now called Lake Lahontan (pronounced: la-HON-tun). The lake was evaporating and getting quite shallow, after being hundreds of feet deep during Pleistocene times, but the marshes and inlets around its margins were still rich with birds, fish, small mammals, and other wildlife. For thousands of years, small bands of semi-nomadic Native Americans roamed this area, hunting and gathering and camping near the marshes. In some areas they made use of caves and rock shelters in the nearby cliffs, formed in the distant past by wave erosion along higher Pleistocene lake shores. Some of these rock shelters and caves were lived in for weeks or months at a time, off and on, for many, many centuries.
One of the caves near Grimes Point, about 12 miles east of Fallon, was not suitable for habitation. With only a tiny entrance and no protective overhang, it was dark, dusty, and filled with the stench of bat guano. But it was large inside, usually dry, had a fairly stable temperature, and its entrance was not easy to find. It was, in fact, a useful place to store tools and food for later use and to take temporary shelter from summer heat and winter storms. Around 3,700 years ago, it was used in this way quite often.
Hidden Cave was “discovered” in modern times by a group of local boys in 1927. It was “mined” for bat guano (a valuable fertilizer) in the 1930s. It was excavated by archaeologists in 1940, 1951, and 1978-79. Today, the cave entrance is sealed by a heavy metal door, but twice a month, a BLM archaeologist leads a tour (starting at the Churchill County Museum in Fallon) into the cave.
You have to stoop low to pass the first 15 feet, but then you can stand and walk on wooden paths that prevent dust from rising to fill the air. An electric generator outside the cave powers lights on the inside (though it nearly caught fire the day I visited and we had to scramble out as it shut down).
Stairs enable visitors to study the trench walls up close. The stratigraphic column spans at least 21,000 years, but the earliest evidence of human use dates to about 5,300 years ago.
The back of the cave remains unexcavated.
Today the view toward Fallon reveals only traces of the prehistoric lake and wetlands, but the practiced eye can see that there was once an extensive marsh, a vast shallow lake, and a scattered population who called this place home.
Copyright © 2010 Tim Messick. All rights reserved.