Dunbar Cave State Park in Tennessee is an Archeology Buff’s Dream Destination
A short drive from Nashville and just south of the Kentucky border, Dunbar Cave State Park in Clarksville, TN is a must-visit if you're a fan of prehistoric history. The Mississippian People were the last major prehistoric indigenous people group in North America before the settlement of European explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries and were plentiful in the southeast region of the United States. This 144-acre park has been in use for thousands of years by the Mississippian people and the caves here were deemed a sacred oasis for religious rituals, shelter, and possibly meat storage.
When I arrived to Dunbar Caves, those who were a part of the tour group met at the gift shop. From the 1880s-1960s, the park was a popular resort center and music venue, and the gift shop was once the resort's bathhouse.
We then left and passed the butterfly garden and the protected wetlands. A ten-minute walk brought us to the entrance of the cave where gusts of cool air welcomed us from the 90+ degree summer heat. The cave maintains a consistent temperature year-round of around 56 degrees - so you can imagine what attracted the ancient people here!
Once inside the cave, the park ranger explained that for these indigenous people Dunbar Cave was not merely a physical cave - but a deeply spiritual place. They believed that the cave acted as a portal to the underworld due to the Red River that flows through it.
Over six hundred years ago the Mississippians left whispers of their story inscribed on the walls with clay, ash, or carved into the limestone of the cave itself. Archeologists aren't positive about what some of the drawings mean but can make educated guesses as to the significance based on existing sources we have. This drawing is believed to be the sun or a comet, once again representing the idea that there were multiple worlds above and below this one.
This drawing is believed to be a man/cattle hybrid, representing the glory of battle and the strength of man. Of course, this is all speculation. The tour guide encouraged us to come up with our own interpretations of the art we saw. What do you think?
In order to protect the prehistoric cave drawings, people are only allowed to enter the caves as part of a guided tour. Luckily, tours take place four times a day from May-September. If you want to visit, you must purchase tickets ahead of time, as tours frequently sell out. No one under the age of 5 is permitted to go. And due to the nature of the cave, no strollers or wheelchairs are permitted. You must bring a hand-held flashlight and are not allowed to take photos inside the cave. This is to honor the request of the indigenous tribal leaders who still view the land as sacred.
If you're visiting Nashville from Kentucky or Indiana, Dunbar Caves State Park is conveniently located just a few miles off of I-24. Make a reservation today to see this amazing part of history!