Sandia Cave, Frank Hibben, and the Mystery of the Past
by Mike Smith
The road up to Sandia Crest winds up that tilted mountain along walls of rock and slopes of pine on one side, and the immensity of space and sky and the world falling away on the other. The feeling there is one of openness, and then, if you choose to turn right, at Balsam Glade, it’s not.
Suddenly, trees ensconce the road. Suddenly, the road becomes dirt. Suddenly, the road becomes almost a tunnel, illuminated only by whatever light can filter down through the trees. This is Las Huertas Canyon Road, where the Ellis family homesteaded in 1893. This is where locals once talked of strange lights and mysterious presences. Where Native American hunters, Mexican herders, and white miners have all breathed and walked and searched for something. This is a creek world, a tree world, a stone world, a shadow world. It’s a place apart, a quieter place, a wilder place, and it’s a road that if you follow, will lead you even deeper into the heart of everything. Follow it, park near signs for Sandia Cave, walk a dirt trail, walk metal stairs, and then prepare to descend into the Earth itself.
About 80 feet up a limestone canyon’s wall, Sandia Cave hangs like the keyhole of a door, a door that hides a mystery—unending mysteries. The cave’s entrance has been scratched and painted with decades’ of graffiti. The ground is a fine dust that travels home with the cave’s every visitor. A low brick wall partially seals off most of the tunnel, but you can climb over it, and the cave narrows, and twists, and descends, back and back and back, almost 500 feet. There are your hands in front of you, bleached white by artificial light. There is the unnaturally twilit rock. There, if you turn off your light, is complete darkness, complete silence, the smell of water, the taste of dust.
In the late 1920s, the claw of a ground sloth was discovered here, and this excited the interest of Frank Hibben, an eccentric archeologist then affiliated with the University of New Mexico. Hibben was a character straight out of a movie. He was a world-traveling big-game hunter whose house, which is still somewhat preserved near UNM, is filled with literally hundreds of taxidermied animals and animal heads. Wherever you are in it, glass eyes stare out at you. Hibben allegedly performed secret tasks around the world for various U.S. espionage groups, explored everywhere, and dug everywhere. He authored eight books and many articles, had a TV show on ABC—Frank Hibben on Safari—was a popular lecturer and teacher, and is remembered as a charismatic force of a person, a real-life, pith-helmet-clad Indiana Jones.
As an undergraduate anthropology student in the 1930s, Hibben staked out Sandia Cave for study, and soon began to announce amazing finds. The floor of the cave, he said, had sealed in thousands of years’ worth of artifacts, all perfectly preserved in intact layers of sediment. There were stone spear points, bison bones, camel bones, mammoth bones, horse bones, and mastodon bones. There were artifacts that seemed to date back 25,000 years, making Sandia Cave the oldest-known site of human habitation in the U.S. Hibben published a paper about his apparent discoveries in 1941, and both he and this newly emerging story became famous. Unfortunately, Hibben’s claims have since proven highly controversial.
And Sandia Cave should perhaps now be better known not as the oldest-known site of human habitation but as the site of one of modern archeology’s biggest hoaxes. Many people Hibben worked with, and many subsequent researchers, have since cast doubts on nearly all of the alleged artifacts that Hibben almost magically produced from the cave—the spear points were all too intact, there were almost no chips or fragments that would have resulted from making such items, the levels of sediment were far more disturbed and mixed than Hibben had indicated, and many of the animal bones and teeth he recorded appear to have come from widely different sites. One mammoth tooth even had a sticker on it bearing the name of another dig. All that, and a student reported that one night he found that a number of samples allegedly taken from the cave had been mysteriously sprinkled with yellow pollen to make them look more like Sandia Cave artifacts, when there had been no pollen at all on them before. (Douglas Preston wrote a wonderfully in-depth article on all this for the June 12, 1995 New Yorker, “The Mystery of Sandia Cave,” if you’d like to explore this subject further.)
It really does appear that Hibben salted the site, or that if he didn’t, he was a terrible archeologist—sloppy, lazy, inexact, and disorganized. In general, Hibben had a reputation for stretching the truth, and perhaps for being more of a celebrity dilettante than a serious archeologist. Later, in the 1970s, Hibben excavated a site in Chinitna Bay, Alaska, claiming to find Folsom points—spear points dating back 12,000 years—old hearths, flint chips, and mammoth bones. But when another group excitedly made a trip to confirm these findings, they were shocked to discover no evidence whatsoever for any of Hibben’s claims. Hibben had apparently made up all of it, offering only feeble apologetics and denials as justification.
And so, Sandia Cave may not have had anyone camping in it 25,000 years ago. Or 12,000 years ago. Its mystery may not be the mystery Frank Hibben described. But today, when you stand in that cave and look out, or when you sit in blackness in its furthest reaches, you can see why Hibben would have wanted such things to be true, could have felt such things to be true.
It does feel timeless. You do feel connected to the past.
And there is still the mystery of water, trickling down through stone. And there is still the mystery of time, this ocean of time that came before us, an ocean that had to have been filled with something.
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