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Beacon blog: Follow the footsteps to our past

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 3, 2011 - Bold and monumental evidence of the prehistory of St. Louis was pretty much obliterated by 19th-century residents of European ancestry. There were, for example, large concentrations of man-made mounds along the riverfront. Only one remains, the so-called Sugarloaf Mound at 4420 Ohio St., visible from Interstate 55 in south St. Louis. The rest of the mounds were destroyed. To give those who plowed them down the benefit of the doubt, let's just say their destructive tendencies arose out of ignorance rather than barbaric intention or simple greed.

In spite of the fact that nowadays vast numbers of people recognize the material past  as being enormously valuable, the tendency to disregard and to destroy the past continues to bedevil us. Although we have come a long way, should some building or some mound or some burial ground get in the way of "progress," the past often loses.

But now and again, the past wins, and wins big. Such is the case with an extraordinary underground formation in the middle of a field on a Missouri farm. I have no idea where the site is, and wisely, the property owner, the archaeologists and crews at work on the dig have their lips securely zipped. To pinpoint the location is to ask for trouble -- and for the destruction of the evidence the cave system reveals.

Many of us have been promised something to be gained by following footsteps, only to find the path to be followed is crooked and leading to something you wouldn't have in your possession even it were absolutely free. If, however, you follow the "Footsteps into the World Beneath," a documentary on the Archaeology channel and screened at the Missouri History Museum, you'll find the payoff is extraordinary.

I learned about the movie and the work on the site initially on Facebook in postings by Mark Leach. The back story is this. In 1985, a sinkhole yawned open in a Missouri field, and the owner of the property, fortunately, called in professional cavers to investigate it. The site was pristine, untouched for centuries. The "paleo" entrance to the cave collapsed long ago, and the easy access it offered to humans and beasts was blocked.

To get into the cave -- and to examine the prehistoric evidence it protects -- now requires rappelling down a narrow 60-foot vertical tunnel. Once the cavers, the archaeologists and filmmakers are there, the evidence of prehistoric exploration of the cave begins to reveals itself.

Footprints were left by a prehistoric human visitor, and she or he or they also left markings on walls, thus connecting this cave's art to a venerable tradition that goes back more than 17,000 years to Lascaux, in France, where the discovery of an abundance of vivid paleolithic drawings brought new meaning to the term "art history."

While the rock drawings in the Missouri cave are fewer in number, less sophisticated and entirely more modest than the Lascaux treasures, the markings are enormously significant in advancing our understanding of the artistic lives and aspirations of the prehistoric residents of this region. So little is known of their culture -- so much is mysterious -- that any evidence is valued and worthy of thorough examination.

Along with the human evidence, there are the markings of bear and lion. There are, as well, 22 recognized bear-denning beds in the cave, indicating that bear spent their winter rest in the cave. (Bear, I learned, don't actually hibernate, but certainly take it easy during the cold weather months.)

The cave system is huge and one is left wondering what else can be found. But it is, as one of the speakers at a screening of the film noted, "a time capsule treasure in Missouri."

Christian Cudnik's movie is as fascinating as it is important. Although this discovery does not answer questions yet, perhaps more important is the fact that it asks new ones. Who was the person, or who were the people who explored this cave in the 16th century? What do the markings on the walls represent? What does the information being discovered add to what we know of the mysterious appearance, then disappearance, of the people we call the Native Americans who populated our state, and Mississipians? Was the cave a place of shelter or a sanctuary for sacred practices?

Right now, we don't know. And perhaps we never will. But just as we think we have reached the limits of knowledge, something old comes along and presents itself as exciting and new. And in attempting to understand it, sometimes, we begin to understand more about ourselves, and not only our own intellectual limits but also our own cultural potential.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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