Newberry Cave has been on my mind for nearly a year, this past summer Meghan and I made our first attempt to find it based on information we had received from another party. It was a blistering 120+ degree day, the term “hot as hell,” could have easily been applied. We made what should have been a short hike into a canyon, located just outside of Newberry Springs, CA. The canyon was filled with obstacles, and I found myself climbing up some of the worst scree slopes imaginable (scree is a collection of broken rock fragments at the base of crags, mountain cliffs, volcanoes or valley shoulders that has accumulated through periodic rockfall from adjacent cliff faces).
The sun was cooking our minds after an hour or so, Meg eventually had to take shelter under a boulder overhang while I continued the hunt. It wasn’t long before I had to give up for the day, it was just too damn hot, and I began to believe that this wasn’t the right place.
I reported back to my source that this wasn’t the correct location, or if it was, I just wasn’t able to find it. Neither of us knew for sure, it really was a hunch going in, but you can never know until you get out there and look.
Months would go by, and thoughts of finding the elusive Newberry Cave would enter and exit my mind. I don’t have a problem getting out there and hunting down a site with little or nothing to go on, I do it all the time, I probably would have done so if I had found myself in the Newberry Springs area, but I didn’t.
Eventually a new source of information would enter the picture, I could only hope that their information was a little more accurate. I sat on the intel for a couple of months, and when the right opportunity presented itself, Meg and I took off once again in the search for the Newberry Cave.
On what was a beautiful Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we set off down old Route 66 for Newberry Springs, just twenty-miles east of Barstow. Arriving around 10am, the temperature was a lovely 55 degrees, less than half of what it had been on our earlier attempt. The area that we would be searching today was a good 5 miles away from where we had previously been on that hot summer day.
The hike into the canyon I had estimated to be only a little over a half mile, I had figured on a quick hike in, but that wasn’t so much the case. The length of the hike was short, but again the canyon proved to be more of a challenge than anticipated. You may know the type, boulder strung, dry-falls, and overall as rocky as it could get. Early on Meghan took a fall landing her knee on a rock, and her hand directly in cat-claw bush. Like a trooper, she carried on.
After few minor slowdowns, and a slightly injured Meghan, I began to think that I had navigated incorrectly. I told Meg to take a rest, and I’d continue up canyon to double-check before we backtracked down. I noticed right away that the canyon was coming to an end, a few massive boulders blocked my view of the back of the canyon, I had to get up there, get around them and see what lied behind them. Climbing dry-falls, and maneuvering myself around and over the stone filled upper reaches of the canyon, I finally see a cave high on the cliff side. I think to myself, “if that is it, I’m screwed, I don’t have the equipment to get up there”. I’m finally able to see behind the boulders that had blocked my view, I found it…Newberry Cave!
The cultural significance of Newberry Cave is vast. The cave was first discovered in the 1930s, but wasn’t excavated until 1953. The excavation process took place over a period of three years, and was supervised by the San Bernardino County Museum Association. What would be found buried in the cave would be very telling, and likely helped to shape our ideas of what the Mojave Desert once looked like, and how early man lived in this region.
One of the most fascinating discoveries were the bones of the Shasta Ground Sloth. The Shasha Ground Sloth was a bear-sized creature that roamed the American southwest during the last ice age. Radiocarbon dating was done on the bones, providing evidence that they are 12,000 years old. To put that in prospective, 10,000 years B.C.! If you would like to find out more about the Shasta Ground Sloth please visit: San Diego Zoo
Many Native American artifacts had also been excavated from the cave. These artifacts include chipped stone, principally Elko and Gypsum series projectile points, one Eastgate point, blanks, flakes, and debitage. Stone items include pigment and palette stones, and two quartz crystals. The bulk of the items consisted of wooden items: fragments of dart-shafts (foreshafts, mainshafts, nock ends, etc.) and split-twig figurines. Radiocarbon dating was again carried out on some of the objects, dating them from 1215 B.C. to a maximum of 2480 B.C.
The entrance to the cave is highly decorated with unique pictographs (Native American stone paintings), the particular style of these designs have not been found anywhere else in the Mojave Desert region. Many of the designs are painted in a green pigment, this is a VERY rare occurrence. Other pigment colors include white, red, and black. The pictographs are believed to be over 3,000 years old, making them some of the oldest cave paintings in North America.
I confirmed that I indeed found the correct site by approaching the cave entrance, looking for any evidence of the pictographs that I had known should be there. When I noticed the green designs on the wall I knew, I walked away to radio Meghan, telling her to continue up canyon. I didn’t want to explore the cave before she arrived, I wanted to share with her the joy of seeing it together.
We approached the cave entrance together, each studying a section of the wall, soaking it in…a 3,000+ year old language written on the wall of a cave. We have no idea what any of it means, that language is long-lost, while the symbology lives on, leaving many questions unanswered.
An airplane crossed the sky above us, I looked down canyon to where we had come from. I could see Highway 40, homes, and agricultural land. I paused for a moment, and reflected on how much has changed since these people painted these designs. We have managed to be able to put together a pretty good picture of what life for these early humans was like, but they never could have imagined the world that we live in today. I have to wonder if they would have traded their simple existence for the world of cars, money, cell phones, and computers. Would we be living more fulfilling lives without the need to collect massive amounts of stuff? Probably, but we’ll save that for another day.
After studying the pictographs, we prepared to enter the cave. It looked large, and very dark from the outside. The floor was covered with rat droppings, and dust. I had left my gear down canyon a bit, so we had no breathing masks…probably not the brightest idea to enter without them, but we took our chances. The cave was much larger than I had anticipated, the walls and ceiling, staining black from ancient fires. The overall feel of the cave wasn’t inviting, it gave off this feeling of being in a horror movie, an extra creepy one.
While scouring the inside walls with our headlamps we took notice to a series of baby blue lines on the wall. Unsure of what they were, I documented them, figuring that I’d try to figure it out later. I’ve since contacted the anthropologist at the San Bernardino County Museum Association about the blue lines, only to find out that I documented vandalism that they had not previously been aware of. A full report is being made to the governing BLM field office.
**UPDATE 1/30/14** It has been brought to my attention by a number of reputable sources that the blue lines are NOT vandalism, but rather markings made by archaeologist during the excavation process. Why the San Bernardino County Museum Association stated that these blue lines are recent vandalism is unclear.
We spent a bit more time outside of the cave, making sure that we had documented everything, then made the hike back down the canyon to the Jeep. It was a pleasure to finally have the opportunity to visit the Newberry Cave, I can only hope that the paintings will remain for another 3,000 years, but we’ll never know if they do, will we?