Last updated: September 25, 2019
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Mammoth Cave: A Closer Look

Mammoth Cave is part of the Mammoth Cave National Park, a national park of the United States that sits in central Kentucky.  The cave is part of a more extensive cave system in the region, one of the most extensive yet discovered in the world.  The cave and surrounding park are centered on the Green River. Open for exploration by the public, Mammoth Cave is also home to many natural wonders. In fact, with more than three hundred sixty-seven miles of known cave passages within the system, Mammoth Cave is still yielding up new discoveries in the form of previously unknown passages and connections between passages each year.  The cave system is also home to some interesting fauna, including the Kentucky cave shrimp, which is a blind albino shrimp found only in the caves of this part of the world.

Mammoth Cave is composed mainly by limestone from the Mississippian era; a layer of sandstone tops off the limestone layers of the cave, contributing to a great deal of geologic and structural stability for the entire system (Harris and Tuttle, 1997).  The upper layer of sandstone in Mammoth Cane is interspersed with thin layers of limestone.  This area of the cave is called the epikarstic zone; the epikarstic zone has thousands of tiny cave passages that are too small for a human to enter (White, 1989).  The epikarstic zone also filters water from spring systems through the sandstone and limestone underneath.  This water eventually makes contact with the limestone foundation of the cave system, and it is at the limestone foundation layer that most of the explorable passages of the cave are found (Palmer, 1981).

Working downward from the upper sandstone layer of the cave, there are several different limestone layers before arriving at the limestone foundation.  These limestone layers are, in order from highest to deepest, the Girkin Formation, the Saint Genevieve Limestone, and the Saint Louis Limestone.  The largest passageway in the cave system, called the Main Cave, is located between the Girkin and Saint Genevieve Limestone layers.  Each of these layers of limestone is divided into smaller units and subunits.  Some geologists make entire careers out of studying the limestone layers of the Mammoth Cave system.

While water filtering downward in the cave means that lower-level passages tend to be full of stalactites and stalagmites (which are formed from dripping water), the upper levels of the system near the more solid sandstone have few, if any, of these features.  Because sandstone is so difficult for water to penetrate, the opportunities for stalactites and stalagmites in the upper passages of the cave are limited (Livesay and McGrain, 1962).  The flow of water throughout the various rock layers of the cave system have also caused a sinkhole to form at the bottom of a valley in the Mammoth Cave National Park; in this sinkhole, a portion of an underground river briefly emerges from one side of the sinkhole, before disappearing underground once again.

Mammoth Cave is a park because it has defined borders within which the natural landscape is cared for and managed by the National Park Service, and because it provides guided tours to visitors.  In fact, the Mammoth Cave National Park provides a variety of guided tours, depending on your preference.  There are several tours of the cave that range in length from one to six hours that take visitors through those portions of the cave that have been fitted and lit with electric lighting.  Two other tours take visitors through areas not yet electrically lit, and partakers of this tour have to carry their own paraffin lamps to light their way.  Still other tours exist for the more hardy and adventurous travelers; these extreme tours of Mammoth Cave delve into the undeveloped and wild parts of the cave, into crawl spaces and barely explored tunnels.  The National Park Service provides tour guides for most tours of the cave system, as well as graphic displays of the cave’s history positioned at strategic locations throughout the tunnels.

Mammoth Cave has had a history that has been intimately connected with that of human beings for thousands of years.  There is direct evidence of the cave being used as a burial ground for local Native Americans of the pre-Columbian era.  Many sets of mummified remains of ancient Native Americans have been found in purposeful burials in and around Mammoth Cave; it is reasonable to expect that more such treasures are still waiting there to be discovered.  There have even been examples of ancient accidental deaths at the cave.  A prime example of this was the discovery of the remains of a pre-Columbian man in Mammoth Cave who had been killed by a falling boulder (Klass and Switzer, 2005).  This man appeared to have been a miner of sorts, which demonstrated just how useful the cave was to Native American people.  The remains of this man were displayed to the public for a time, then quietly re-buried within the cave in a secret location out of sensitivity to the religious beliefs and practices of the local Native American community.  The near-constant and steady temperature and humidity within Mammoth Cave has allowed for a fairly consistent preservation of ancient remains, most of which are discovered in good condition due to the steadiness of the cave’s interior climate.  Mammoth Cave acts almost as a natural time capsule for archaeologists.

The ongoing archaeological explorations and studies at Mammoth Cave are an important issue facing it even today.  Concerns regarding archaeological research at Mammoth Cave are two-fold.  First, there is the concern over the proper treatment and respect of ancient Native American remains and artifacts.  The religious beliefs and customs of the Native Americans of the area prohibit the disturbing of the remains or belongings of their ancestors.  This has led to conflict with archaeologists.  Archaeologists need to be able to examine such remains and artifacts in-depth in their natural setting and often again in a laboratory in order to gain a true understanding of what they are studying.  Archaeologists in the Mammoth Cave system want to discover the intimate details of the lives of the ancient Native Americans.  This includes such minutiae as what they ate, what they wore, what tools and utensils they used, and how they found their food.  Other, bigger issues are also desirable as areas of study, including how these ancient people spent their days, years, and lives and how they interacted with one another, as well as the dates that certain events occurred in their timeline.  In order to discover these things, it is necessary to examine and study the remains they left behind.  Native Americans oppose this study, for the most part, due to their own beliefs.  They believe it is more important to respect the remains of their ancient ancestors by leaving them alone than it is to discover more about how they lived.  As a result, some stringent laws have been passed in how to properly deal with and study ancient Native American remains found in Mammoth Cave; however, since these laws still allow for study, Native Americans have not been completely appeased and still feel that their culture and heritage is being shown disrespect by modern researchers.

The second problem facing Mammoth Cave in regards to archaeology is the constant presence of tourists in the cave.  Since there are new discoveries being made in Mammoth Cave all the time, tourists on guided tours are often inadvertently the ones to stumble across ancient remains and artifacts.  In many cases, tourists have unwittingly damaged an archaeological site by moving artifacts from their original position.  Archaeologists need to study an artifact in the exact location it was found, so even moving it a little bit can damage the integrity of the site.  Further, tourists have sometimes taken potentially valuable archaeological discoveries out of the cave, and have sometimes accidentally destroyed artifacts before they had a chance to be examined by archaeologists.  This has led to some strict regulations being imposed on visitors to the cave, and certain areas of the cave are completely off-limits to anyone except archaeologists.

In the future, the guardians of Mammoth Cave will have to find ways to better integrate the need for archaeological research with the need to respect Native American beliefs.  They will also have to find ways to protect the fragile archaeological remains of the cave from damage and theft by visitors, while at the same time ensuring the cave remains accessible to those visitors.  Mammoth Cave is, after all, a public cave, but it has an ancient past.  The present and the past both collide at Mammoth Cave; they must better learn to live together for the sake of everyone.




















Harris, Ann G., Tuttle, Elizabeth, and Tuttle, Sherwood D.  (1997). Geology of National Parks.  New York: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.

Klass, Raymond and Switzer, Ronald R. (2005). Mammoth Cave National Park Reflections.  Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press.

Livesay, Ann and McGrain, Preston. (1962).  Geology of the Mammoth Cave National Park Area.  Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press.

Palmer, Arthur N. (1981). A Geological Guide to Mammoth Cave National Park.  Teaneck, New Jersey: Zephyrus Press.

White, William B. and Elizabeth L. (1989). Karst Hydrology: Concepts from the Mammoth Cave Area.  New York: Van Nostrand Rheinhold.