Ancient Americans made art deep in the dark areas of Southeastern caves

On a cold winter day in 1980, a group of recreational cavers entered a narrow, wet passage south of Knoxville, Tennessee. They sailed up a slippery mud slope and a narrow keyhole through the cave wall, crossed the stream itself, ducked through another keyhole, and climbed more mud. Eventually, they entered a relatively dry elevated passage at the bottom of the cave’s “dark area” – out of reach of outside light.

Human figure from Mud Glyph Cave with right hand raised and Chunkey game piece in left hand.
Alan cressler

On the walls that surrounded them, they began to see lines and figures drawn in the remnants of mud banks deposited long ago when the stream flowed at this higher level. No modern or historical graffiti has marred the surfaces. They saw images of transformational animals, people, and characters interweaving human characteristics with birds and snakes with mammals.

Ancient rock art has long been one of the most fascinating artifacts of the human past, fascinating both to scientists and to the general public. Its visual expressions resonate through the ages, as if the ancients were telling us about the depths of time. And that group of cavers in 1980 stumbled upon the first site of ancient rock art in North America.

Since then, archaeologists like me have uncovered dozens of other rock art sites in the southeast. We were able to get details on when rock art first appeared in the area, when it was most often produced, and what it could have been used for. We also learned a great deal from working with the living descendants of rock art creators, today’s Native American peoples of the Southeast, about the significance of rock art and its importance and significance to Indigenous communities.

small cave opening with stream in foreground
From the outside, these caves do not betray any clue of ancient art that could be found inside.
Alan cressler

Rock art in America?

Few people think of North America when they think of ancient rock art.

A century before Tennessee cavers made their own discovery, the world’s first modern discovery of rock art was made in 1879, in Altamira, in northern Spain. The scientific establishment of the time immediately denied the authenticity of the site.

Later discoveries have served to authenticate this and other ancient sites. As the earliest expressions of human creativity, perhaps 40,000 years old, European Paleolithic rock art is now rightly famous around the world.

But similar rock art had never been found anywhere in North America, although Native American rock art outside of caves has been recorded since the arrival of Europeans. Deeply buried works of art were unknown in 1980, and the southeast was an unlikely place to find them given the extent of archeology that had been carried out there since colonial times.

Nonetheless, Tennessee cavers admitted 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 has shown that the art originated in Mississippi culture, some 800 years old, and depicts images characteristic of ancient Native American religious beliefs. Many of these beliefs are still held by the descendants of the Mississippian peoples: the modern Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Coushatta, Muscogee, Seminole, and Yuchi, among others.

After the discovery of the Mud Glyph cave, archaeologists at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, launched systematic investigations into the caves. Today we have listed 92 dark zone rock art sites in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. There are also a few well-known sites in Arkansas, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

What did they represent?

There are three forms of rock art in the southeast.

  • Mud Glyphs are designs drawn on soft mud surfaces preserved in caves, such as those in the Mud Glyph Cave.

  • The petroglyphs are designs incised directly into the limestone of the cave walls.

  • The pictograms are paintings, usually made with charcoal-based pigments, placed on the walls of the cave.

Sometimes more than one technique is found in the same cave, and none of the methods seems to appear earlier or later in time than the others.

dark silhouettes of a human and a quadruped on stone
Archaic period pictogram of a hunter and prey dated 6500 years ago.
Alan cressler

Some rock art in the southeast is quite old. The oldest rock art sites date from around 6,500 years ago, during the Archaic Period (10,000-1000 BC). These early sites are rare and appear to be clustered on the modern Kentucky-Tennessee state line. The imagery was simple and often abstract, although representative images do exist.

Outline of a human carved in stone
Woodland period petroglyph of a box-shaped creature with a long neck and a U-shaped head.
Alan cressler

Rock art sites multiply over time. The Woods Period (1000 BC – 1000 AD) saw a more common and widespread artistic production. Abstract art was still abundant and less mundane. Probably more spiritual subjects were common. During Woodland, amalgamations between humans and animals, such as “bird-humans”, made their first appearance.

The Mississippian Period (1000-1500 AD) is the last pre-contact phase in the southeast before the arrival of Europeans, and it is at this time that much of the rock art in the area dark was produced. The subject is clearly religious and includes spirits and animals that do not exist in the natural world. There is also strong evidence that the Mississippian art caves were compositions, with images organized through the cave passages in a systematic fashion to suggest stories or tales told through their locations and relationships.

dark silhouette form of a creature on all fours on stone
Pictograph from the Mississippian period showing an animal with claws on the feet, a blunt forehead and a long muzzle, with a long curved tail on the back.
Alan cressler

Rock art continued into the modern era

In recent years, researchers have realized that rock art has strong ties to the historic tribes that occupied the southeast at the time of the European invasion.

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

Inscription on the cave wall written in Cherokee syllabary
On the wall of a cave in Alabama, an 1828 Cherokee syllabary inscription relating to a stickball ceremony.
Alan cressler

Cherokee archaeologists, historians, and language experts have partnered with non-Indigenous archaeologists like me to document and translate these rock writings. 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 religious ideas similar to those represented by graphic images in the periods prior to contact.

[Over 110,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]

Based on all the rediscoveries researchers have made since Mud Glyph Cave was first explored over four decades ago, rock art in the Southeast has been created over a long period of time. time. These artists worked from the ancient times when ancestral Native Americans lived foraging for food in the rich natural landscapes of the southeast until the historical period just before the Trail of Tears saw the forced displacement of indigenous peoples to the east of the Mississippi River in the 1830s.

As investigations continue, researchers are discovering more and more dark cave sites each year – in fact, four new caves were discovered in the first half of 2021. With each new find, the tradition begins. to get closer to the richness and diversity of Paleolithic art in Europe, where 350 sites are currently known. The fact that archaeologists were unaware of rock art in the Dark Zone of the American Southeast even 40 years ago demonstrates the kind of new discoveries that can be made even in areas explored for centuries.