Staff Writer Kate Mekechuk attended the Center of Science and Society’s lecture by Professor Sophia Roosth who discussed “The Intraterrestrials,” an exploration into the spelunkers of Mammoth Cave.

It was a warm Wednesday afternoon when I prepared for the most important mission of my life: traversing the John Jay Cave (also known as JJ’s Place). I stood at the entrance, heart beating, palms sweating, and took the first step. One foot in front of the other, I carefully descended the steep staircase into the realm of the unknown. A brave caver passed me on my left, sprinting down as if his life depended on it. I can only assume his enthusiasm to enter the mystifying JJ’s Place was for the holy grail: a chocolate milkshake. I made it down the staircase, through the Keeper of the Meal Swipes, obtained a holy grail for myself, and secured a spot in the John Jay Cave Seating Area. There, I opened my laptop and watched Professor Roosth’s lecture via Zoom. Just as I had traversed the John Jay Cave, Professor Roosth interviewed and wrote about the spelunkers of Mammoth Cave. 

Professor Roosth is currently the Frederick S. Danziger Associate Professor in the History of Science at Harvard University. She is also an author, lecturer, and active anthropologist. Her work focuses on contemporary life sciences, and she is currently writing her next book about the “intraterrestrials” of the world.

Mammoth Cave, located beneath Kentucky, is the longest known cave system in the world, containing more than 420 miles of mapped karst limestone. The people Professor Roosth interviews, referred to as “cavers,” live to map, survey, and plot the intricacies of Mammoth. The cavers permitted to study Mammoth Cave by the National Park Service include both scientists and professional cavers alike. Above ground, the spelunkers rest and research at the Hamilton Valley Station, but this is not their primary location. The cavers schedule their lives around Mammoth. They are raised in Mammoth Cave. They get married in Mammoth Cave. They go on honeymoons in Mammoth Cave. They have their funerals in Mammoth Cave.

Professor Roosth shared the story of one caver who stated that exploring Mammoth Cave runs in the family. At just 18 months old, the caver first descended into the cave. Later, when she was only eight years old, she joined her first exploration group. She was a gymnast, being placed into the shafts that were too small for adults to climb into. This, as she explained, created an intergenerational attachment to Mammoth.

Next, Professor Roosth shared the difficulties of mapping the gargantuan Mammoth Cave. The high-tech computer-generated 3D maps are not only too expensive but use too much storage; about 0.7% of the mapped cave (3 miles) use terabytes of storage. Based on an estimated size of the Hamilton Valley Station, it’s unlikely that there is physically enough room to store the data for the 3D maps. Because of this, cavers go between known survey points, measuring inclination, direction, and distance. This data is recorded and traced in a hand drawn sketch of the cave. The spelunkers then move above ground to redraw the maps, taking as long as one hour to draw 100 feet of cave. Additionally, this method allows the cavers to feel more acquainted with the cave as they explore and survey the underground city.

When visiting Mammoth Cave, Professor Roosth described it as feeling like another world—linear time becomes fluid and all that exists is the current moment. As you walk down a corridor, she explained, there can be a newspaper from the ‘90s juxtaposing the ancient shark teeth that cover the ceiling from when the cave was underwater. A cracked liquor bottle sits below drawings from the indigenous tribes that first explored Mammoth about 5,000 years ago. You walk down a passage that is both an ocean and a beach, stepping through two very different periods of time simultaneously, becoming a time traveler that was previously only fictitious.

Listening to Professor Roosth speak was transformative. Her eloquent lecture was accompanied by a beautiful presentation, highlighting the love that the cavers feel for Mammoth. I didn’t know Kentucky had the largest known cave system in the world, but now that I do, it’s definitely on my bucket list to visit. However, I might need to explore some more intermediate caverns as the John Jay Cave may not have adequately prepared me for the journey ahead.

Spelunkers via Professor Roosth’s lecture