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Bat Caving on the Plains of San Agustin

By Leonard Padilla

Last updated on Sunday, January 05, 2003

View from Bat Cave, overlooking the Plains of San Agustin.
View from Bat Cave, overlooking
It is just before noon. Heat waves, generated on what is later reported to be the hottest day of the year, rise above the Plains of San Agustin. On a earlier trip to Bat Cave, wind and dust dominated the environment. I'll take the heat. We've stopped at a road junction just west of Horse Springs in Catron County to cast off the sport utility vehicle ("SUV") from its motorhome mooring. Bryce, the black and tan miniature pinscher, starts to explore. By the look of her trot, she will be back only when she is finished. Sure enough, before we can leave, I have to chase her down.

The dirt road south from New Mexico Highway 12 is rough and dusty. Eventually, we turn east and approach a ranchhouse where the road vanishes at a corral filled with cattle. I stop and wait a respectful time for someone to request that I stay out of the corral. Even though Bat Cave is on public land, I prefer to notify the rancher of my presence. On an earlier visit, permission was freely given. This time, no one from the ranch appears. I make my way through the corrals and cattle to the other side of the corrals and a primitive road scored with deep ruts. A vehicle can easily become stuck on the high center. To compound the difficulty of reaching Bat Cave, the lowest point of the entire Plains of San Agustin is near. In wet weather, this road borders a playa and should be avoided. We continue east, skirting the edge of steep hills that flank this southwestern edge of the plains.

Bat Cave.
Bat Cave.
Dark and prominent volcanic rock formations mark our destination. The cave is located a short walk up the hill. Obsidian and chalcedony rock workings tumble down the slope and litter the cave entrance. In Bat Cave's cool shadows, we rest and re-hydrate. Breezes spring from the scrubby brown landscape to cool our just-moistened foreheads.

I survey the scene. Bat Cave, my remote perch, was formed by ancient wave action. Tens of thousands of years ago, an inland sea 35 miles long and 165 feet deep would have filled my view. Five thousand years ago, bison herds rumbled nearby. Primitive fields of corn and squash sprouted below on the ancient lake bed. Today, herds of domestic cattle graze in the shimmering distance. Bat Cave provides the only shade for miles, except where man has planted windmills or a few trees. Man's efforts, spanning at least five thousand years, don't amount to much out here.

Bryce and I explore the main chamber, which is about 60 feet long and wide, and 75 feet tall. Cave swallows investigate our presence, defeating complete silence by slicing the air above us. I see no evidence of bats. If there are any bats here, they are likely sleeping as they tend to do. Smaller chambers pock the hillside east of the main chamber and appear back filled. Perhaps they were once passages to underground caves now sealed by earthquakes and time. A metal box erected by a governmental agency stands just inside the main cave, strangely out of place. Perhaps it held a guest registry at one time. I get the distinct feeling there aren't many visitors here these days, but it's easy to imagine the cave bustling with activity at one time, and bustle it did.

In the late 1940's and early 1950's, archeologists excavating Bat Cave unearthed an abundance of man-made materials. Stone artifacts include projectile points, choppers, scrapers, knives and grinding stones. Bison, deer, antelope, and elk bones were uncovered, along with yucca fiber sandals, sinew, fur and leather. Intriguing finds include eagle feathers, bundled in tall grass stems wrapped tightly with human hair string, and a gaming set consisting of rocks, a river pebble, counting bones, and a wooden top, all in its own yucca carrying bundle.

Example of a corn cob found at Bat Cave.
Example of a corn cob found at Bat Cave.
Example of a corn cob found at Bat Cave.  Bat3.  Ancient corn, which radiocarbon dating places at about 3,500 BC, was the most prominent discovery. Bat Cave held the record for the oldest corn in North America until earlier corn was discovered in Mexico. Recently, even older corn was discovered in southern Arizona. The hundreds of cobs dug from Bat Cave span such a long time period they demonstrate to scientists an evolutionary sequence. Some of the corn cobs are tiny; well proportioned, but no bigger than an ordinary car key.

Based on the variety of food found here, scientists believe Bat Cave once had a permanent water supply, or that rainfall was more abundant than the present. Squash was cultivated alongside corn. Beans arrived later, at about the same time as pottery (1,000 BC), which was used to soak and cook the beans. Hundreds of beans were excavated, found stored in a leather bag made from the complete hide of an antelope fawn, the legs drawn up and bound together to form the top.

Regretfully, it's time to leave. Bryce steps out of the cave but quickly retreats. The ground is too hot for her. I pick up my companion, tuck her under my arm and descend. When we reach the SUV, Bryce scampers underneath while I open windows and start it. I talk Bryce into the cab and douse her with water. On our way to dock with the motorhome, Bryce finds her place in front of an air-conditioning vent. If she had a tail, it would be wagging.

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