|Wildkirchli Caves - Fieldnotes
If Wildkirchli sounds like a wild place, that's because it is.
Wildkirchli means "little church in the wilderness" and collectively refers to a system of caves in the Alpstein massif of Appenzellerland. This region lies in the northeast corner of Switzerland and is entirely surrounded by the Canton of St. Gallen. The town of Appenzell is at the heart of the Appenzellerland and can best be pictured as something out of Willy Wonka's chocolate land. The Wildkirchli cave system itself is found on the south east flank of the Ebenalp Mountain, which at 5,381 ft above sea level, is the most northerly summit of the Appenzell Alps.
The mountains, with their clean air, became a popular tourist attraction and in 1955 a cable car was built from the village of Wasserauen in the valley below. The cable car station of Ebenalp allows access to the mountains' high plateau where hiking trails lead to a network of mountain huts and gasthauses,(guest houses). The Wildkirchli caves are a short 15 minute walk below the Ebenalp cable car station. Beyond the caves is a guest house serving light refreshments. The mountain is a popular hiking destination attracting up to 200,000 visitors a year.
The Wildkirchli caves have been a refuge from the outside world for thousands of years. Their isolation at an altitude of 4770 feet cuts them off almost completely. Evidence suggests that the caves were inhabited by cave bears (Ursus spelaeus) throughout the various ice ages, dating back to 90,000 BC. The caves were first mentioned in a description of the Pilatus Mountains by Joachim Vadian in 1524; although the first detailed description by the Capuchin P. Clemns from Appenzell did not appear until 1716 in the book, Naturhistorie des Schweizerlandes, (Natural History of Switzerland) by Johann Jakob Scheuchzer.
In 1621 the caves where first visited by P. Philipp Tanner, after which time the first altar was built. This so-called "cave shrine" consisted of a shallow barrel vault, and had an entrance porch which was later extended. Hermits sort refuge in the caves, the first being Paulus Ulmann in 1658 to 1660. From this time these hermits became known as Waldbrüder. In 1853 the last hermit died after he took a purler when collecting leaves. Various parts of the caves were re-modelled or sealed up with the current altar back wall dating from 1785. In 1860 a new bell tower and small "guesthouse" was constructed, which in 1972 became a small museum.
Between 1903 and 1908, the caves were partly excavated by the St. Gallen archaeologist Emil Bächler (1868–1950). Bächler discovered evidence of habitation dating back to the Palaeolithic period, 50,000 to 30,000 BC. These included traces of Neanderthal humans who he believed may have co-inhabited the caves with hibernating cave bears. Bächler had carried out investigations at other cave sites and in 1940, published his findings in the book, Das alpine Paläolithikum der Schweiz im W., Drachenloch und Wildenmannlisloch.
Although bear worship or arctolatry as it is collectively called, does exisit in many different forms and cultures throughout the world, Emil Bächlers' speculation on Neanderthal mans' practice during the Palaeolithic period is today regarded with some scepticism. I have included links to various web sites and downloadable pdf's with regard to this subject.
Posted by Chance
14th August 2010ce