Cave of the Catacombs

Calaveras County, CA

By Bruce Rogers

White settlers apparently (re)discovered this little cave near Mountain Ranch on April 30, 1850 and named it Cave of the Catacombs according to a short note in the Alta California newspaper. Mr. Lane, a merchant, and Mr. McKinney, both of Mokelumne Hill, were these discovers (nearby McKinney Creek was named after Mr. McKinney). Lane, in particular, found the first human skeleton upon the cave floor some distance inside the entrance. A Mr. E. Sexton of N. York City (June 23, 1850) D.W. Strong, J.J. Wright, and H.S. Anhisen (location unknown), and R. Dowling (location unknown) left their signatures etched in the wall of the cave. Mr. O. Robinson also visited the cave in1853, leaving his signature. The original explorers remarked on the large quantities of stalactites (everything attached to the ceilings and walls of caves were referred to as stalactites in that time period) and indications of gold in the sediments. Shortly after the cave’s discovery, several local miners entered the cave and panned the floor sediments looking for gold; they were disappointed. Subsequently, its location was lost and, indeed, the travel writer and California booster J. M. Hutchins does not mention the cave in his 1872 Scenes of wonder and curiosity in California book. Cave of the Catacombs was rediscovered with considerable fanfare on July 20,1881, by Messrs. Nichols and Mititch (apparently both doctors) as reported in the Sacramento Union newspaper. They estimated there were between 25 and 30 skeletons, including male and female adults and children, still lying on the cave floor.

     The 1850 explorers had discovered numerous human bones on and in the loose loamy earth in the cave and reportedly collect some; the disposition of these relics in now unknown. After the caves rediscovery in 1881, the newspapers had a field day speculating the origin of the human remains, attributing them to giants who may have inhabited Casa Grande, the Aztec homelands, or other places, although they did acknowledge that these possible other sites were somewhat far removed from the Cave of the Catacombs. Messrs. Nichols and Mititch called upon California State Mineralogist Dr. Henry Hanks to inspect the little cave. Shortly after his first visit to the cave, Hanks employed four men under the supervision of a Mr. McPherson to excavate the Indian bones from both the drier parts of the cave and from under the shallow lakes present. These bones are now in the collection at UC Berkeley(?). Since that time, bags of bones were collected and deposited in the Calaveras County Coroner’s office; their disposition is, unfortunately, now unknown (J. Johnson, pers. comm.).

During Hanks’ visit, an elderly Mewuk(?) (currently spelled Mi wuk) Indian at mission San Jose, reputed to be more than 100 years old, related a fanciful tale about her older sister and children being entombed in the cave to starve to death for leaving her husband, a practice reputedly commonly engaged in by the local Mi wuks for some time. The mission padres had rushed to the cave and released the unfortunate inhabitants, most of which either “quickly died or became raving maniacs.” The Mu wuks were known to have a mortal fear of caves, ascribing a cannibalistic giant made of rock known as Che he lum che who made night raids on the local Indians and gathering them into his collecting basket, also made of rock. He also would feed upon the bodies of unfortunate Indians either thrown into caves or falling into caves. Among these caves that were inhabited by the giant were Cave City Cave (also known as Mammoth or Crystal Cave), Cave of the Catacombs, Mercer Caverns, and Cave of Skulls(?) near Parrots Ferry. Therefore, no Mi wuk was to bury their dead on these caves and, if they did so, would be killed by the other Mi wuk. Little evidence was offered to support this fanciful tale when local California Indians were exhaustively studied by anthropologist Professor C. Hart Merriman in the very early 1900’s. Besides, the Mi wuk had apparently always burned their dead and never interred them in caves.

In May of 1929, The Oakland tribune newspaper reported that Franklin(?) Cliff, an anthropologist from UC Berkeley, visited O’Neil Cave and also remarked in passing about Millers Cave, but did not make any study of the caves or their deposits.

Cave of the Catacombs has also been known as Miller’s Cave–named after Mr. Jerry Miller, the 1950’s owner of the property–and Skull Cave-that name coming form the many Indian skulls originally found in the cave. The name Skull Cave has also been applied to O’Neil’s Cave (also misspelled O’Neals Cave) by assorted writers as well as Cave of the Skulls mentioned above. Stanford Grotto made its first trip to the cave in September of 1950 and noted the abundant human remains on its floor. Subsequently Dr. Robert Heizer of the University of California, Berkeley, visited the cave and made some preliminary studies of the human remains. In November of 1951, the Stanford Grotto members returned to the cave armed with an August 15,1881 San Francisco Call newspaper account and sketch map of the cave, exploring the cave, and mapping its length of approximately 430 feet of passage. After comparing the etched signatures in the cave and excavating the blocked, eastern entrance, they realized that this was the original Cave of the Catacombs.

The cave is located in a low, partly vegetated marble hill adjacent to a small topographic amphitheater. Considerable native and introduced grasses, shrubs, and trees cloak most of the hill. Buckeye (Aesulus californica), poison oak (Taxicodendron diversalobum), and other low trees and shrubs are the predominant cover. The several lakes in the cave apparently are reflections of the local water table. In extreme drought years, the main lake occasionally dries up while in wet, El Nino years most of the cave is flooded.

The bedrock is marble of the Calaveras Assemblage, a unit that dates from the Permian Period in age, between about 298 and 252 million years ago. We know the age of this rock unit because rare “ghost” fossils are very sparsely found within it. Solitary horn-shaped corals with a diameter of a half dollar coin can be found as ghostly circular structures exposed on the surface of the rock. When examined in detail, they show no actual structure, probably being only a chemical signature of their former selves. At that time the area that is now California lay off the western shore of the super continent Pangaea covered by the globe encircling Panthalassa Ocean. In that environment, shallow banks of lime mud and shells accumulated and were later consolidated into limestone. During the succeeding several hundreds of millions of years, earth movements rearranged the continents and the limestone was heated and compressed into marble. Later volumes of magma rose in the crust and cooled to form granitic ricks and also melted most of the older sedimentary rocks including much the limestone. This metamorphism also baked the limestone and dolomite into marble. Later uplift and erosion stripped most of these rocks way, leaving only scraps of the marble floating in a sea of granitic rock behind. Slowly percolating ground water, enriched with dissolved carbon dioxide from soil bacteria, gradually dissolved the marble along nearly vertical cracks (called joints) and formed the cave. After the cave breached the surface and allowed the carbon dioxide-charge cave air to mix with the atmosphere, the water composition changed and it dropped its dissolved mineral load as cave decorations called speleothems.

In the past it appears the local Indian population used the cave as a mortuary site. While the cave has been known since the mid-1800’s to hold human remains, it has not been scientifically excavated. The absence of cave floor surface artifacts so far is a puzzle, but perhaps the bodies were simple dropped into the upper entrance, a narrow slot above the Historic Entrance.

The cave is roughly capital “A” shaped. There are three entrances. The main or Historic Entrance is a few dozen feet north of Rodesino Street and measures about four feet wide and six feet high. Its ceiling is a roughly two-foot wide, ocherous-colored deposit of calcite cemented terra rosa with rounded fragments of marble, most of pebble to cobble size. A thin, spotty cover of light tan-colored coralloids covers some of this deposit. This deposit has not been looked at closely to see if any animal remains may be encased in as many other Mother Lode cave deposits. The lower or dug entrance is very small, often blocked with surface soil, to the east, and very low on the hill. The Upper Entrance is a very narrow, jagged slot perhaps four feet long and a foot wide; it opens into the initial passage continuing from the Historic Entrance.

From the Historic Entrance a tall, fissure-like passage extends almost due north for about ten feet where it widens. This initial slot is about three feet wide and perhaps ten feet high. This passage slopes inward at about a 30-degree angle and covers large breakdown blocks of marble. At its end, this passage intersects a linear room trending N60°W. The ceiling of the initial slot is irregular with both ceiling pendants and false floor remnants present.

The chamber to the right (east) is called the Henry Hanks Room and is about 10 feet wide and 15 feet high. Its floor slopes down at a roughly 20-degree angle to an angular breakdown-covered floor with the upper slope of this floor covered with in-washed surface soil. The lower part of this room is normally submerged under three to five feet of clear water, apparently the local water table.