Sandia Cave Historical Background




Sandia Cave (also known as Sandia Man Cave) is a National Historic Landmark that has played an important role in the history of archaeological thought about the Paleoindian period and Southwestern archaeology. The cave is also a designated traditional cultural property that is culturally significant to numerous Pueblo groups.

The site is located high on the east side of Las Huertas Canyon in the northern Sandia Mountains. The mouth of this limestone cavity is small, its open length is 127 yards, and in only a few interior places may a person stand erect. Frank Hibben (1910-2002) of the University of New Mexico conducted excavations in the cave from 1937 through 1941 in an attempt to associate prehistoric humans of the “Sandia culture” with extinct Pleistocene mammals. Hibben argued that “Sandia points” represented a culture that predated both Clovis and Folsom. Controversy erupted regarding the true age of the points, as other archaeologists questioned the cave’s proper stratigraphy and whether Hibben himself had planted the artifacts. Following a series of published academic articles questioning the veracity of the finds at Sandia Cave, Hibben’s work was discredited. However, the debate that ensued over Sandia Cave continues to be taught in the history of Paleoindian and Southwestern archaeology. Popular and professional articles revisiting the site and discussing the Hibben controversy continue to be published into the 21st century.  

Despite its cultural and historical significance and popularity as a tourist destination, the integrity of the cave has diminished over the past several years. The mouth and the area just beyond the mouth of the cave are heavily and repeatedly vandalized. The entrance area of the cave is severely sooted and blackened from fires illegally lit in its interior. There is extensive spray-painted graffiti (and litter) inside the cave and at selected spots on the trail. This graffiti potentially obscures valuable information located on the rock surface. If left untreated, it can also bond to and damage underlying rock surfaces over the long term.

Visitors to the cave are advised to wear proper caving equipment if venturing past the small wall located 40 feet inside the entrance. As seen in these photos taken when the cave was surveyed in 2007, dust masks, kneepads, and of course helmets with lights should be worn as the cave is extremely dusty. Slow movement through the passages by small groups will minimize the dust. Visitors with breathing or lung issues should not go beyond the top of the spiral staircase. Do not start any fires in the cave and please help remove any trash that others have thrown down before your visit.

Dan Montoya, at right, sketches the cave during a Sandia Grotto survey trip in 2007.

Research on the psychology of graffiti application suggests that graffiti often begets more graffiti. Once one transgression is extant, subsequent visitors are more likely to view the practice as acceptable and graffiti occurrence multiplies. Studies of visitor experiences on public lands also suggest that signs of degradation such as graffiti negatively affect visitors’ experiences. The prompt removal or treatment of extant graffiti helps diminish the incidence of future graffiti. The masking or removal of graffiti can visually reintegrate a surface and improve how visitors view and value a site.

Dan Montoya

This project’s aim, then, is to remove this graffiti in a conscientious manner while meeting a number of milestones. Mitigation has been contracted out to Dr. Johannes Loubser of Stratum Unlimited. Loubser has a PhD in archaeology and substantial amount of experience; his credentials meet Secretary of Interior Standards as an archaeologist. His archaeological contract company, Stratum Unlimited, specializes in graffiti removal at archaeological sites. Recent successful projects of his have taken place at Chaco Culture National Historical Park and the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

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