People & Caverns Lesson 1: Living Conditions


Students will learn to understand the diverse uses of a cavern.

Background Information

Throughout history mankind has utilized caverns for numerous purposes. The dark, hidden, even-temperatured spaces have had their practical uses. In addition, the mysterious subterranean chambers have inspired numerous myths and legends. Walking slowly into the unknown and inhospitable, haunted by eerily echoing dripping water, visitors have always had strong emotional reactions to caverns. It is not hard to understand why primitive people believed caverns to be places where evil creatures lurked, or magical events transpired.

Listed below are ways that people have used caverns:


  • Primitive people used caverns for shelter, refrigeration of their food, and as cemeteries
  • In the past, caverns with their forbidding, dark interiors and complicated, hard-to-navigate passageways were sometimes used as jail cells
  • Bat populated caverns have been mined for bat guano which makes an excellent fertilizer
  • Geologists have learned much about the history of the earth by studying the exposed geological layers in caverns
  • During the Revolutionary War, caverns were mined for saltpeter, an ingredient in gun powder
  • Mushrooms, which require darkness and humidity have been grown commercially in caverns


  • Caverns have made great hiding places for fugitives from the law, notorious among them, Black Bart who hid out at California Cavern, and Jesse James who made Meramec Caverns in Missouri his hiding place.
  • With often concealed entrances and dark, enclosed interiors, caverns have made excellent venues for secret meetings. At California Cavern, the “Know Nothing” political party held its clandestine meetings there in 1855.


  • Primitive people used caverns as places for sacrificial ceremonies, and to record their histories with colorful pictographs (see supplemental handout for more information and activities concerning cave drawings)
  • Young people from ancient times to the present day have used the mystery of caverns to create tests of bravery and coming-of-age tests
  • Caverns have been used as beautiful and unusual venues for acoustically rich church services, marriage ceremonies and community dances


  • During the Civil War, slaves escaping the southern states utilized what was called the “Underground Railroad” – the excellent protection afforded by hidden caverns
  • During the two World Wars, emergency plans for the protection of the population included using caverns as bomb shelters


  • Spelunking trips are physically and emotionally demanding, making caverns a great destination for adventurous people
  • Families enjoy taking walking tours along trails in caverns, viewing the beautiful crystalline formations and learning about their geological formation
  • People who have a passion for caverns have purchased karst land and developed trails in caverns to make it possible for the general public to visit and enjoy them.

At Sierra Nevada Recreation Corporation, our caverns were used in many ways before they became show caves:

The first visitors to Moaning Cavern were most likely people who fell in accidentally. Over one hundred human skeletons as well as animal skeletons have been found at the bottom of the main chamber. Testing shows that the skeletons are over ten thousand years old – possibly the oldest human remains in North America. In the 1850’s gold miners searched the cavern in the hopes of striking it rich. There was little gold to be found and thankfully the cavern was not destroyed in their search. Artifacts from both the primitive people and the miners are on display at the visitor center.

California Cavern also had ancient visitors. Human skeletons were found in the cavern in the fetal position with no clothing, tools or signs of fires. This leads scientists to believe that they were put into the cavern alive, possibly as prisoners. In October 1850 the cavern was discovered by a miner from a nearby mining encampment. Soon the cavern was open to the public for tours (California Cavern was the state’s first show cavern). The mining town that grew next to it was named Cave City. The townsfolk used the cavern as a cool place to hold socials, church meetings and weddings.

Experiments & Activities

Grades K – 4 “In The Beginning”

Primitive people who lived in caverns created the first tools and utensils. If possible, take the class outside, away from any structure, to set the atmosphere. Have the students imagine living in a cavern without any of the modern conveniences they are used to. Discuss day-to-day activities that require tools or utensils (for example, gathering food, then preparing and eating meals, writing, washing clothes, etc.) and discuss how to go about doing these activities without our modern tools. Encourage the students to invent tools. Ask them what materials they would use and how their inventions could be created without modern tools to help.

Grades K – 4 “Record History”

See supplemental handout for information and activities

Grades 5 – 8 “Explaining the Mysterious”

Have the students write a story creating a legend that includes a cavern.

Grades 9 – 12 “Shelter”

Research why a cavern is not a good fallout shelter.

Grades 9 – 12 “Geological History”

Research how caverns are helpful to geologists in studying the earth’s history.