Sandia Cave

Useful Information

Location: High up on the steep wall of Las Huertas Canyon on the north end of the Sandia Mountains. Off N.M. 14. Near Placitas, New Mexico. 800m hike.
Open: no restrictions [2005]
Fee: Parking fee by the USFS. [2006]
Light: none, bring torch
Guided tours:  
Bibliography: Frank C. Hibben (1946): The Lost Americans.
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
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1935first artifacts discovered by an University of New Mexico student on a weekend visit.
1935inofficial excavations by two UNM graduate students in archaeology, Wesley Bliss and Frank C. Hibben.
1937Hibben publishes first article on the Sandia Cave.
1940Time magazine story.
1941Hibben's report on his Sandia Cave excavations published by the Smithsonian Institution.
1946Hibben published a popular book called The Lost Americans.
20-JAN-1961Designated a National Historic Landmark.
15-OCT-1966Added to the National Register of Historic Places.


Sandia Cave is rather hard to reach, as it is located high up on the steep wall of Las Huertas Canyon on the north end of the Sandia Mountains. The road SR 165 above Placitas is a rather bad gravel road through Cibola National Forest. At the narrow vertical sign that says Sandia Cave is the parking lot, from here a 800m long trail to the cave starts. It finally leads up a concrete staircase to a ledge in the limestone cliff, and then a 4m high metal spiral staircase goes up to the entrance. Although there are no restrictions, we recommend strongly a daylight visit. A torch and appropriate clothes and shoes are a good idea too. The cave is small, but there is a narrow and low, probably 100m long passage which may be explored. Sandia Man only lived in the entrance, and that's where the excavations concentrated on.

The first artifacts were discovered in 1935 by an University of New Mexico student on a weekend visit. He brought a cigar box containing artifacts to the Anthropology Department. The items were late Pueblo, and they showed that the cave might be worth a closer look.

Two UNM graduate students in archaeology, Wesley Bliss and Frank C. Hibben, started their own weekend digging. Bliss withdrew, but Hibben carried on and published a first article two years later. He soon became Professor at the UNM, and in the same year he was featured in an article by Time Magazine, as a young archaeologist in New Mexico, who had made a major discovery while digging at Sandia Cave. They also introduced the story of the oldest American to the broad public and made Hibben famous.

Until 1940, the oldest known American was the 10,000 years old Folsom Man, found near Folsom, N.M., in 1926. At the site mainly stone points were found, finely chipped and fluted. But the lowest level of Sandia Cave stone implements were discovered intermixed in the debris with bone fragments of extinct Ice Age animals. This was interpreted as a much higher age. The so-called Sandia Points are distinctive stone spear heads, fairly heavy and roughly chipped, with a stepped shoulder on one side above the base, which became one of the artifact's chief identifying characteristics. 19 pieces were found at Sandia Cave, together with some scrapers.

From the 1950s to the 1970s there was a road marker calling it the location of "...Sandia Man, one of the earliest cave-dwelling humans known on this continent". However, there was some controversy about the finds and their interpretation. Some even called it a hoax. Hibben was a celebrity because of all the publications, but he was also sloppy. He later admitted he had made mistakes, and his archaeological writings were marred by contradictions. However, discoverings during the last decades made the dispute obsolete, as there are now old human remains which are dated properly.

See also

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