Discovering Our Past: New Film Looks at Ozarks' Cave, Other American Landmarks

Aug 13, 2014

We’re surrounded by many historical landmarks in the Ozarks. But some are more visible than others. As KSMU’s Scott Harvey reports, one site tucked beneath the surface is among dozens across the country to be featured in an upcoming film exploring America’s history through archaeology.

“This right here, this is where we saw the first fossil, we saw that claw mark on the… that scratch mark on the wall. And we realized we had something pretty exciting in here.”

It’s a cool 58 degrees inside Riverbluff Cave, where paleontologist and executive director for the Missouri Institute of Natural Science Matt Forir shines his flashlight on the claw mark of the now extinct giant short-faced bear.  The mark is eight inches wide, and sits roughly 12 feet off the ground.

Matt Forir, executive director of the Missouri Institute of Natural Science in Springfield, shines his flashlight on a claw mark made by the now extinct giant short-faced bear.
Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU

“Right now you’re standing on a surface that was here during the Ice Age. This hasn’t changed. So giant short-faced bears, Ice Aged pigs, American lions – all these animals were walking on the same surface that we are today,” Forir says.

The cave, located in southwest Springfield, stretches over 2,000 feet and holds sediment more than one million years old. It’s the oldest fossil cave site in North America.

Closed to the public, Riverbluff Cave has been a research site since discovered by accident in 2001 when crews blasted a large opening into it while constructing a road.

I’m escorted inside through a large steel door equipped with air tight lockable gates just off of Farm Road 141.

“This site is really one of the most important Ice Age scientific sites on planet Earth.”

That’s Dr. Monty Dobson, a Springfield archeologist and filmmaker. His recently completed series, “America: From the Ground Up” connects history with archaeology, showcasing more than 30 historical sites in parts of the U.S. and Canada, including Riverbluff Cave. Dobson says he was motivated to feature the cave and other less talked about North American landmarks because of the false notion that the best history or archaeology can only be found in places like Europe or Africa.

“We have this idea that all of the cool stuff is somewhere else… And every day right here in Springfield, Missouri, we’re walking on top of incredible history, incredible paleontological sites like this one,” Dobson said.

As Forir activates the lights that have been installed inside the cave, I find myself in an opening about 25 feet high. Above, the ceiling is covered in flowstone. But my eyes quickly gravitate toward these large white columns, stretching from the floor to the ceiling, giving the impression of ice sculptures. But it’s more complicated than that. As Forir explains, rain that falls on the surface above seeps through the limestone, collecting a mixture of carbon and oxygen before entering the cave and depositing onto the column.

“So these aren’t just formations, these are actually record keepers of time and environmental conditions. We can tell temperature, we can tell what kind of plants were alive during that time, by coring and looking at a cross section of these.”.

As we continue further into the cave along a makeshift cinder block trail system, it widens and deepens. The room is now about 50 feet high, and we’re an estimated 80 feet below the surface. Forir calls it a giant stone cathedral. We’re surrounded by rock and clay, with concentrated areas of tiny droplets of water falling through the cracks above.

The cave’s consistent temperature and humidity make it an ideal site for preserving fossils. So much so that crews have discovered fossil bugs like millipedes, calcified earthworms, and large fossils like that of mammoth.

Sections of sediment that date from 650,000 years old to 970,000 at its lowest point.
Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU

“And so we start up here at 650,000 year old sediment.”

Forir is showing me a section of the cave’s wall that depicts multiple layers of historic sediment, with the top layer, he says, representing all the things the wolves brought in.

“All these bite marks on it and turtles and elk bone and other wolf bones and just neat stuff that the wolves brought in.”

With every spring brought flooding, says Forir, creating millimeter upon millimeter of sediment.

“And so this is 650,000 years old. This is 740,000. This is 850,000. We’ve got 970,000 and 1.1 [million years] over in the pit over there.”

And it’s not just about identifying the oldest sediment or discovering fossils. The cave’s environment allows researchers to uncover how a species may have lived hundreds of thousands of years ago.

“Bones are incredible, they tell you a lot about an organism. But what they don’t do is give you habit. What did that bear do in a cave? What did the cat do? What did the Ice-Aged pigs do? But what this cave does, because the so preservation is so amazing, so unique, it preserves track ways.”

Like in the case of the claw mark left by the giant short-faced bear.

“That split second of that animal’s life is preserved in this cave. And we can identify, we can see what it was doing. And you never get that from the bone, you always get that from the trace fossil. So we’re very fortunate to have a cave that’s full of that, too,” says Forir.

Research on Riverbluff Cave has been published in journals internationally.

While the cave is closed to the public, officials hope its findings will help inspire more interest in science and they welcome citizen participation.

“That’s one of the things that I think is a unique aspect of the museum and this site, is the opportunity for citizen science,” says Dr. Monty Dobson. “For people to get involved and get trained and come and actually participate in an internationally important scientific research site.  

With funding provided through grants and donations to the Missouri Institute of Natural Science, crews will continue to explore this historic cave. Forir predicts someday they’ll discover sediment more than two million years old. And because of its size, Forir says he’ll likely excavate only two to three percent of the cave in his lifetime, leaving plenty of territory left for future generations to discover.

“America: From the Ground Up” also documents a historical site in St. Louis, as well as sites in 11 other U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. The six-part series begins airing on PBS stations across the country this month. You can watch the series locally on Ozarks Public Television Sunday afternoons at 2:30 p.m. beginning September 7.

Watch a portion of the Riverbluff Cave segment in Dr. Dobson’s film. You can also view a 10-minute trailer of the entire series at americasarchaeology.org.

The Missouri Institute of Natural Science will conduct a watch party and fundraiser on Friday, September 12 beginning at 6:30 p.m. Attendants are encouraged to donate $25.