Located in Tabeguache Canyon southwest of Montrose, Tabeguache Cave was used during the Basketmaker II period (400 BCE–400 CE) of the Ancestral Puebloan tradition. Excavated in 1939–41 by the Colorado archaeologist Clarence T. Hurst, it was Hurst’s first excavation in the area and led him to excavate many other nearby sites over the next decade. With corncobs dating to the first century BCE, the cave has yielded information about early farming in the Southwest and could have been home to ancestors of the later Fremont culture.
Tabeguache Cave was first noted by W. C. Huntley of Nucla, who reported the cave’s unusual contents to D. B. Walker of the Colorado Archaeological Society’s Montrose chapter. Walker, in turn, told Hurst about the site, and Hurst accompanied Walker and Ernest Ronzio on an exploratory visit in June 1939. A test pit revealed enough cultural material to justify excavation, so in August Hurst led a brief field expedition from Western State College (now Western State Colorado University). Two better-equipped expeditions followed in 1940 and 1941.
About 125 feet across with an overhang of up to forty feet, Tabeguache Cave contained evidence of at least three separate periods of Basketmaker II habitation. Because the cave faces north and receives no direct sunlight, Hurst speculated that it was occupied in the summer. Logs from the cave dated to the 300s CE. Hurst’s excavations revealed cultural deposits up to forty inches deep, including projectile points, bone tools, wood tools, and the remains of corn, squash, and acorns. He also found basket pieces, a yucca-leaf sandal, and a retaining wall and platform across part of the floor. One wall of the cave had a five-foot Basketmaker petroglyph depicting an anthropomorphic figure.
In 1994 Mark Stiger re-examined Tabeguache Cave as part of a larger effort to reanalyze many of Hurst’s discoveries. He found that the cave had been subject to some vandalism since the 1940s but still contained many valuable archaeological artifacts, including corncobs and perforated stone disks. Tree-ring dating of wooden beams in the floor platform and radiocarbon dating of corncobs showed that the cave was occupied in the first century BCE, earlier than previously thought. The cultural affiliation of the inhabitants remains unknown, but it is clear that they were early farmers. Because of its northern exposure and cooler temperatures, the cave could have served as a food cache.