Friesenhahn Cave: Window on the Past
Robert E. Gentet and Edward C. Lain
Concordia University at Austin, Texas, recently acquired Friesenhahn Cave near San Antonio, Texas. No other site except perhaps the La Brea Tar Pits in California yielded a greater variety of Pleistocene vertebrate fossils. The site offers exciting possibilities for further research.
The name "Friesenhahn" was adopted for the fossil-rich cave in northern Bexar County, Texas (near San Antonio), from the name of the owner of the ranch on which the cave was discovered. The earliest discoverer of the cave is unknown, but the first published material in a scientific journal appeared in 1919 (Sellards, pp. 73-74). Early discoveries of fossils by local residents had brought the cave to the attention of the scientific community. O.P. Hay (1920) published more material about the cave, originally named "Bulverde Cave," and the known fossils from it.
It was nearly 30 years later before earnest scientific work at the site would commence. A field team from the Memorial Museum at the University of Texas excavated the site during the summers of 1949 and 1951 at the invitation of the owner of the cave, Alfred Friesenhahn. More recently published material about excavations at the cave date from the 1970s and 1980s by R. W. Graham (1976;1987).
Present-day entrance to the cave is gained by descending a ladder some 45 feet below the surrounding land surface. The original cave opening has long since been closed due to collapsed limestone blocks and rock debris that washed in from the surface. At sometime later the new vertical shaft (sinkhole) opening was formed, once again providing a natural, but straight vertical decent into the cave.
The present dimensions of the cave are approximately 60 feet long and 30 feet wide. The rather modest dimensions of the Friesenhahn Cave belie its paleotological importance. It was the first cave in Texas studied by the scientific community for fossils. It is now acknowledged one of the richest and most important Pleistocene fossil sites in all America.
The diggings of archeologists since the late 1940s have changed the characteristics of the cavern. Originally the surface of the cave fill extended to within 2 to 6 feet of its roof. Much cave fill has since been removed. Now due to the excavations, most of the room is about 7 to 8 feet high. As the cave was excavated in a series of trenches, the location of each new fossil was carefully noted. The cave fill was found to have had four distinct zones or units (see Figure 1 and caption for further explanation).
The original entrance passage to the cave was at the northwest end of the cavern slanted upward at an angle of twenty to thirty degrees. Through this passage various animals made their way into the cave and alluvial fill washed into the interior. A pond of water occupied the lower part of the cave when the angular, original entrance was still open. The cave provided a natural and convenient home to various animals. It also provided a burial ground for bones in the cavern when heavy rainfall periodically washed soil and rock debris into the cave. Through this process, a stratified series of bone deposits was created that almost filled the cave before the original entrance was sealed.
Excavations in the cave fill have yielded an exceptional number of bones and teeth of more than 30 genera of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds. One of the most important finds was a nearly complete set of remains of an adult Homotherium serum (saber-toothed cat). Other Homotherium remains were also recovered from the cave, including a nearly complete infant skeleton. Up until their discovery in the Friesenhahn Cave, Homotherium (formerly noted as Dinobastis) was previously only known by a few fossil fragments (Meade, 1961, p.27).
Large herbivorous animal remains have also been identified in the cave deposits, including the mammoth, mastodon, bear, camel, horse, bison, tapir, and deer. These probably would not have entered the cave of their own accord but may have been carried there by carnivores.
An exceptional number of immature Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) remains have been found (Toomey,1994, p.59). Several hundred young mammoth remains accumulated in Friesenhahn Cave. The bones are disarticulated and scattered. Some appear to have pits or sheared surfaces possibly made by the sharp teeth of a large carnivore. This strongly suggests that Homotherium serum selectively chose young mammoths for food and brought them into the cave.
The American Mastodon (Mammuth americanum) is also represented, but its remains are not as abundant as is the mammoth. This is an intriguing bit of evidence. The mastodon is a warm climate animal whereas the mammoth has been predominantly linked to colder, northern climates. This possibly suggests a cooler climate in this area of Texas at that time more suitable for the mammoth.
Fragmentary remains of the ground sloth have also been found in the cavern deposits, but other edentates (glyptodonts and armadillos) commonly present in late Pleistocene deposits of the Coastal Plain and river deposits of Central Texas are absent from the collection.
Three time settings are available for the fossils, less than 300 years, 8,000-9,000 years, and 17,000-19,000 years old (Toomey, 1994, p.59). There is probably some validity to the first date, but the latter dates are of little value, given the notorious unreliability of C-14 dates.
Evidence for Man
Evidence of the presence of man in Friesenhahn Cave is scant and only suggestive. However, the existence of Paleo-Indian life in the Lower Pecos River region of Texas (some 200 miles to the west of Friesenhahn Cave) is known from two sites (Bonfire Shelter and Cueva Quebrada) ranging in dubious C-14 dates as old as 14,500 years ago (Turpin, 1994, p.69). There clear evidence of man (flint flakes and tools, burned animal bones) and remains of "extinct species" (Turpin, p. 69) of horse, camel, bison, bear, and mammoth are found mixed together, evidence that Paleo-Indians used these sites for big game hunts. Sutcliffe (1973, pp. 428-30) reported that gnawed bones and antlers by Norwegian reindeer and Scottish reindeer were sometimes mistaken for human artifacts. However, this does not seem to be the case with the remains found along the Pecos River.
When reading the literature regarding the Pleistocene, one is left with the impression that eight or ten thousand years ago a large number of Ice Age animals took one last step, one last breath, and then fell dead and vanished from the face of the Earth. There is evidence, however, for a quite different story.
For example, in Notes on Virginia, Thomas Jefferson (Peterson, 1977, pp.73-74) relates that Delaware Indians visiting the Governor of Virginia during the American Revolution informed their listeners that the mammoth was still alive in the northwestern part of the country. He further relates the account of a Mr. Stanley, captured by the Indians at the mouth of the Tennessee and transferred through several tribes. Eventually he was taken over the mountains west of the Missouri River to a westward flowing river. There, Mr. Stanley observed an abundance of bones, which he attributed to the elephant. His captors assured him that the animal was still alive in the northern part of their territory.
A recent book by Vine Deloria, Jr. (1997) details the oral traditions of many American Indian tribes and their intimate encounters with now extinct animals. Various geologic events commonly dated many thousands and even millions of years ago by scientific community are also recorded. Such memories are still vivid within the Indian tribes indicating a much shorter time frame since these events occurred.
Friesenhahn Cave, though small, records a wealth of information about the paleontological history of South Central Texas. The fossils found in the cave note post-Flood changes in the environment and ecosystem of the region. Much can be learned from the cave deposits that would be applicable to fossil deposits in other areas. A complete survey of the regional geology of Friesenhahn Cave using the Creation/Curse/Catastrophe (CCC) young-Earth geologic model is planned by the authors for future submission to the Quarterly. The accompanying interview with Dr. Larry Meissner, Concordia University biology professor, provides more information about the cave and associated excavation activities.
The authors wish to thank peer reviewers for their helpful comments. Special thanks to Dr. Meissner of Concordia University in Austin for supplying valuable information and photographs of the cave. Funding from the Creation Research Society research fund was used for this paper and is gratefully acknowledged by both authors.