Ohio Archaeology, Part II: Sheriden Cave

Karen Schaefer- Eleven years ago, the only sign of Sheriden Cave was a shallow depression that lay outside the entrance to a network of caverns near Findlay, Ohio run as a local tourist attraction. The owner decided to dig out the sandy soil, to see if there was another cave underneath. More than 15,000 cubic yards of dirt later, he exposed a funnel-shaped sinkhole with a small cave opening off one side. And in that cave were the perfectly-preserved remains from a world not seen since the end of the last Ice Age.

Tom Grove- What I had really been fascinated by is there are literally bone beds.

KS- Tom Grove is an Ohio archaeologist who worked for two summers at Sheriden Cave. He says what the backhoe uncovered was a treasure trove of Ice Age animal bones, extinct mammals that once roamed the edges of the retreating glacier..

TG- We got down in layers. We ran into giant beaver and probably caribou. We found a knuckle of an arto simas, which is a short-faced bear.

KS- At first, no one guessed that the cave might hold human remains. Paleontologists from the University of Cincinnati began excavating the dense layers of bone. They concluded that the sinkhole was a natural animal trap where giant beaver and flat-faced peccaries fell to their deaths or were cornered by predators like the carniverous short-nosed bear, bigger than a modern grizzly. In the sealed cave, even plant remains were preserved. Dr. Brian Redmond, curator of archaeology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, says Sheriden is one of a mere handful of North American cave sites where buried deposits reveal a rich portrait of the end of the glacial period.

Brian Redmond- It would have looked quite different than it does today. For example, probably in the Northwest Ohio area, the western basin of Lake Erie would have been more of a swamp than a lake. There would have been a lot more swamp areas, which would have been a rich resource for humans. Most of the people that have reconstructed the ecology of that time picture it as kind of an open spruce parkland, with open grassy areas and maybe small groups of mastodon walking around the spruce.

KS- But in 1995, excavators found something they hadn't expected. Lodged in the same deposits as the bones of the pig-like peccaries was a finely-crafted bone point. Beveled on one end and ground to a long point on the other, the six-inch sliver of bone could mean only one thing. Human hunters had been in the cave, either stalking or scavaging the very caribou, giant deer, and stag moose whose bones now lay exposed.

BR- That continued excavation, particularly at the back of the cave where this little bit of soil was preserved, resulted in the discovery of a fluted point, a small Paleo Indian-age point. This is the first really diagnostic artifact of the earliest Ohioans being in that cave.

KS- Redmond joined an archaeological team headed by Dr. Ken Tankersley, then a professor of archaeology at Kent State University. Over the next four years, they found more evidence of early hunters - known as Paleo Indians - who roamed the frozen shores of Lake Erie's predecessor. Another bone point was uncovered, along with the tool-marked neckbone of a snapping turtle, and beautifully-worked stone scrapers, drills, and points made from chert quarried more than two-hundred miles away. Archaeologists also found pieces of charcoal mixed in with the artifacts and bones, possible evidence of ancient campfires lit by the roving bands of hunters who stopped at the cave on their seasonal rounds.

BR- We have a number of radiocarbon dates that have been assayed on the charcoal that has come out of the deposits. In fact, now we have over 30 dates from just his one section that pretty much pinpoint that human occupation between about 10,400 and about 10,900 years ago.

KS- Sheriden Cave is not the oldest Paleo Indian cave site in North America. But for researchers, the find represents an important link in the evidence for early immigrants that dots the continent from Alaska to Florida - and now to northern Ohio. Mark Rose is executive editor of Archaeology Magazine, which published the story of Sheriden Cave last December. He believes the presence at Sheriden of both early humans and the animals they may have hunted could one day shed new light on the extinction of Ice Age mammals.

Mark Rose- The question of when animals became extinct, the megafauna, is something that's just in the news right now with a couple of studies that have come out. And the question of to what extent people were responsible, to what extent environmental changes were responsible or even diseases that were introduced from the Old World into the New World.

KS- But for Brian Redmond, Sheriden Cave remarkable for its intimate portrait of people living at the end of the Ice Age. In the years to come he and other researchers will be studying the artifacts and comparing them with similar finds in both the New World and the Old. And this week, visitors to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History can catch a rare glimpse of some of those artifacts that mark the arrival of the first people in Ohio. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3, 90.3 WCPN.

Support Provided By