By Špela Prunk, Slovene archaeologist and speleologist

February 2019

How do people live with caves? How do we understand caves, how do we affect them and how do caves wield power over humans?

Caves represent a powerful place. Caves are dark, quiet and wet. They are a total opposite of our everyday environment. When we enter a cave, we enter a different place, we leave our comfort zone. Caves possess power of which we are not aware. For some of us, caves represent a challenge, the environment draws us in, we want to explore them, we want to spend time within them and feel their power. For others, caves are uncomfortable, scary, a place with which they do not want to relate.

However, it is clearly, that in a cave we understand things differently. We understand ourselves in a different way. We feel different. We experience things differently. What are the reasons for that?

Caves are dark. Because of that, it is hard to orientate inside them, so we can easily get lost. Caves are cramped. Usually there are small, narrow passages inside a cave that limit our movement and allow us to move in just one exact way. If there are more people inside the cave, one can feel a lack of intimacy, uneasiness. Caves are isolated from the outside world. Spending more time in a cave, we feel cold, wet and uncomfortable. But besides all the discomfort, we can understand from listed responses to cave environments, they still attract us. We are visiting, discovering and using them in all sorts of ways continually. Since prehistoric times people attributed to caves a wide variety of meanings, from understanding them as liminal places, as residences of gods and powerful creatures or simply as suitable shelters and depots. In recent times, caves are often degraded, especially when used as rubbish dumps. They represent a simple solution how to get rid of redundant or unwanted objects. With such use, we degrade caves, as well as we harm the whole ecosystem we live in, although that is something, we are not even aware of (since caves hide such actions perfectly).

Beside the power caves wield over people, also people affect the caves. We change them in order to adjust them for a specific use. For example, we dig inside to expand the narrow passages so we can continue our way underground, we build walls, we fill up the entrances to restrict their use, we build paths to make them more accessible. All the changes we make are significant for the way a particular cave affect us, and the way we understand it.

Weather caves attract us or drive us away; we are all connected with them. In order to respect, and protect them, it is important to understand them. As opposed to the changing nature and society, caves are permanent element of the environment, which should rather be respected than neglected.