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Posts Tagged ‘cave art’

Photo: Alan Cressler.
Archaic Period pictograph of a hunter and prey dated to 6,500 years ago. Indigenous art like this in the American Southeast is less well known than that in the Southwest.

You knew that tribes in the Southwest made paintings centuries ago, but did you know that indigenous people were also making art in the caves of the American Southeast? Jan Simek, a professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee, fills in the blanks for us at the Conversation.

“On a cold winter’s day in 1980,” he writes, “a group of recreational cavers entered a narrow, wet stream passage south of Knoxville, Tennessee. They navigated a slippery mud slope and a tight keyhole through the cave wall, trudged through the stream itself, ducked through another keyhole and climbed more mud. Eventually they entered a high and relatively dry passage deep in the cave’s ‘dark zone’ – beyond the reach of external light.

“On the walls around them, they began to see lines and figures traced into remnant mud banks laid down long ago when the stream flowed at this higher level. No modern or historic graffiti marred the surfaces. They saw images of animals, people and transformational characters blending human characteristics with those of birds, and those of snakes with mammals.

“Ancient cave art has long been one of the most compelling of all artifacts from the human past, fascinating both to scientists and to the public at large. Its visual expressions resonate across the ages, as if the ancients speak to us from deep in time. And this group of cavers in 1980 had happened upon the first ancient cave art site in North America.

“Since then archaeologists like me have discovered dozens more of these cave art sites in the Southeast. We’ve been able to learn details about when cave art first appeared in the region, when it was most frequently produced and what it might have been used for.

We have also learned a great deal by working with the living descendants of the cave art makers, the present-day Native American peoples of the Southeast, about what the cave art means and how important it was and is to Indigenous communities.

“Few people think of North America when they think about ancient cave art. … As the earliest expressions of human creativity, some perhaps 40,000 years old, European paleolithic cave art is now justifiably famous worldwide.

“But similar cave art had never been found anywhere in North America, although Native American rock art outside of caves has been recorded since Europeans arrived. Artwork deep under the ground was unknown in 1980, and the Southeast was an unlikely place to find it given how much archaeology had been done there since the colonial period.

“Nevertheless, the Tennessee cavers recognized that they were seeing something extraordinary and brought archaeologist Charles Faulkner to the cave. He initiated a research project there, naming the site Mud Glyph Cave. His archaeological work showed that the art was from the Mississippian culture, some 800 years old, and depicted imagery characteristic of ancient Native American religious beliefs. Many of those beliefs are still held by the descendants of Mississippian peoples: the modern Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Coushatta, Muscogee, Seminole and Yuchi, among others.

“After the Mud Glyph Cave discovery, archaeologists here at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville initiated systematic cave surveys. Today, we have cataloged 92 dark-zone cave art sites in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. There are also a few sites known in Arkansas, Missouri and Wisconsin. …

“The Mississippian Period (A.D. 1000-1500) is the last precontact phase in the Southeast before Europeans arrived, and this was when much of the dark-zone cave art was produced. Subject matter is clearly religious and includes spirit people and animals that do not exist in the natural world. There is also strong evidence that Mississippian art caves were compositions, with images organized through the cave passages in systematic ways to suggest stories or narratives told though their locations and relations.

“In recent years, researchers have realized that cave art has strong connections to the historic tribes that occupied the Southeast at the time of European invasion.

“In several caves in Alabama and Tennessee, mid-19th-century inscriptions were written on cave walls in Cherokee Syllabary. This writing system was invented by the Cherokee scholar Sequoyah between 1800 and 1824 and was quickly adopted as the tribe’s primary means of written expression.

“Cherokee archaeologists, historians and language experts have joined forces with nonnative archaeologists like me to document and translate these cave writings. As it turns out, they refer to various important religious ceremonies and spiritual concepts that emphasize the sacred nature of caves, their isolation and their connection to powerful spirits. These texts reflect similar religious ideas to those represented by graphic images in earlier, precontact time periods. …

“That archaeologists were unaware of the dark-zone cave art of the American Southeast even 40 years ago demonstrates the kinds of new discoveries that can be made even in regions that have been explored for centuries.”

More at the Conversation, here.

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