It was a blistering 120+ degree day, the term “hot as hell,” could have easily been applied. The sun was cooking my mind, I had to take shelter under a boulder overhang. It wasn’t long before I give up for the day, it was just too damn hot, and I began to believe that I wasn’t in the right place.
Months went by, and thoughts of finding the elusive Newberry Cave would come and go. 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 sooner if I had found myself in the Newberry Springs area, but I didn’t.
It was a beautiful Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and with some new information in hand, I set off down old Route 66 for Newberry Springs. Arriving around 10am, the temperature was a lovely 55 degrees, less than half of what it had been on the earlier attempt. The area that was being searching was five miles from where I had previously been on that hot summer day.
I estimated the hike to be a little over a half mile, so I anticipated a quick hike in, but that wasn’t so much the case. The length of the hike was short, but the canyon proved more challenging than anticipated, with boulder strung passage ways, dry-falls, and very rocky terrain. The going was a bit slow.
As I approached the end of the canyon, I was thinking that I was again in the wrong place. A couple of large boulders sat at the end of the canyon, I figured that with my luck nothing would be behind them, but I continued further up canyon toward them. As I turned a corner, I could make out a cave high on a cliff wall, but there was no way that I was getting up to it, it was a good twenty-five feet up a vertical wall. Approaching it, I’m finally able to see completely behind the boulders, and there it was, the 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 three years, and was supervised by the San Bernardino County Museum Association. What they found buried in the cave was very telling, and helped 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 on the bones provided evidence of the bones being 12,000 years old.
If you would like to find out more about the Shasta Ground Sloth please visit: San Diego Zoo
Several Native American artifacts have 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 wood artifacts, fragments of dart-shafts (foreshafts, mainshafts, nock ends, etc.) and split-twig figurines. Radiocarbon dating has dated the items to between 1215 B.C. and 2480 B.C.
The entrance to the cave is highly decorated with unique pictographs, the style having not been found anywhere else in the Mojave Desert region. A majority of the designs were painted with a green pigment, which 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.
The inside of Newberry Cave was dark, dank, and smelled of urine and feces. Rats had infested it, leaving a thick layer of droppings covering the ground. The walls are covered in a thick layer of soot from ancient fires. There were no pictographs inside, but at one time there may have been, the fires erasing them. The cave is considerably large, extending a good forty feet into the mountains, but with the potential for airborne sickness I spent little time inside.
As I’m enjoying the cave that took me several months to pinpoint and find, an airplane crossed the sky above, and I looked down canyon to where I 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 the cave had been inhabited. Archaeologist have put together a pretty good picture of what life for was like for those early humans, but they could have never 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.