Spectacular Spelunking – Part 1
Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park is known for having the most comprehensive cave system currently known in the world. While only 367 miles of passageways and caves have been mapped, there are many more miles still uncharted. Kentucky’s Green River Valley, the surrounding hills and the National Park preserves this cave system. Since it’s inception as a national park in 1941, the area has also been designated an international Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site.
Formed from limestone 350 million years ago, Mammoth Cave began taking it’s shape. Over the last 70 million years, erosion from the Ohio River began to dissolve the stone, leaving the extensive network of tunnels. Over time a layer of sandstone and rock formed secure walls for the tunnels. Most of the caves are dry now, though the lower levels are sill being carved by the Green River, which has reached depths of 450 feet. Along the eastern border of the park the Green River can be seen emerging from it’s underground home. During flood season, swelling whirlpools head back into the cave system. The larger rooms of the caves were formed by such whirlpools millions of years ago.
Native Americans are believed to be the first to find the caves about four thousand years ago. Artifacts like woven cloth, pottery, petroglyphs and torches show that cave exploration began about two thousand years ago. Anthropologists believe that they lived at the cave entrances and mined the tunnels for gypsum, mirabilite, salt and other minerals.
It is is uncertain why the Native Americans who once dwelled on these lands left the area, but a grisly 20th century sheds light in one belief. Cave guides in 1935 found mummified remains of a gypsum miner. A 5-ton boulder had crushed him while he worked. Park officials dubbed him “Lost John”. Other mummified bodes have been discovered in Mammoth Cave, many appear to have been buried there on purpose. P.T. Barnum of the famous Barnum & Bailey Circus purchased one for his side show. Until the year 1970, Lost John was on display. He has since been given a proper burial.