North America is home to a number of cave art sites, some of which date as far back as 6,500 years ago. However, the first discovery of cave art in America was only in 1980 and that is probably why North American cave art isn’t as widely known as what was found in Europe and other parts of the world much earlier. Recently, researchers have found more Mississippian Period images of animals, people, and transformational characters with human characteristics in the US state of Tennessee, reports The Conversation .
Mississippian Period pictograph showing an animal with talons, a long snout, and a tail curving over its back. (Alan Cressler / The Conversation )
The Mississippian Period Revealed Through Cave Art
It was in the winter of 1980 that a group of amateur cavers entered a dark cave located south of the city of Knoxville, Tennessee . They saw lines and figures traced into the remains of the mud banks of the stream that had once flowed through the cave. Instantly recognizing that it was not modern graffiti they were seeing, they brought renowned archaeologist Charles Faulkner to the cave to study what they had found. What followed was a process that has led to the discovery and cataloging of 92 dark-zone cave art sites throughout southeast US by archaeologists from the University of Tennessee Knoxville.
The first modern discovery of ancient cave art was at Altamira, Spain in 1879. However, the scientific establishment of the day was quick to dismiss its authenticity. It was only after several subsequent discoveries, some of which were 40,000 years old, that Altamira and other European cave art sites were accepted and celebrated as perhaps the first expressions of human artistic instinct.
Mississippian petroglyph panel from the central Cumberland Plateau. (S.C. Sherwood / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Mississippian Period Messages in the Mud
The 1980 Tennessee discovery and Charles Faulkner’s involvement set off a chain of events that resulted in the discovery of 92 similar dark-zone cave art sites in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. A few sites have also been found in Arkansas, Missouri, and Wisconsin.
Faulkner named the first Tennessee cave location “Mud Glyph Cave.” His research work at this site showed that the art belonged to the Mississippian culture and was some 800 years old. And for the most part the cave contained images depicting ancient Native Americans religious beliefs.
Interestingly, archaeologists have worked with modern-day descendants of the Mississippian peoples, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Coushatta, Muscogee, Seminole and Yuchi, to make sense of the findings. As archaeologist Jan Simek of the University of Tennessee Knoxville said in the same article in The Conversation , “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.”
A few of the Mississippian Period cave art animal motifs found in the southeastern states of the USA. (S.C. Sherwood / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
The Images and Their Story
As explained in the UTK News , archaeologists have divided south-eastern dark-zone cave art, as it’s known, into three categories: mud glyphs, which are drawings traced into pliable mud surfaces preserved in caves; petroglyphs, which are drawings carved into the limestone of the cave walls; and pictographs, which are paintings on the cave walls, usually made with charcoal-based pigments. In some caves one can find two or even three of these categories.
The oldest sites of south-eastern cave art date back to the Archaic Period (10,000–1000 BC). Clustered along the modern Kentucky–Tennessee state line, these sites are few and hold simple and mostly abstract motifs, although some representational pictures have also been found there.
The Woodland Period (1000 BC– 1000 AD) produced more cave art sites. Still mostly abstract, their subject matter was probably spiritual. Mythical creatures like bird-humans, were also first depicted in this period.
The Mississippian Period (1000 AD – 1500 AD) is the last Native American historical period before the Europeans arrived, and this was when most of the dark-zone cave art was produced. The art was clearly religious in its inspiration and included spirits and mythical animals. The arrangements were more complex and seemed to be compositions with images organized through the cave passages to tell stories.
Talking to CNN in 2013, University of Tennessee Knoxville archaeology professor Jan Simek spoke of one fascinating cave in particular. “There’s a small cave in the middle part of Tennessee, a very small cave that contains over 400 engraved images that are extraordinary. Some of them are tiny — so small that if you didn’t know how to look for them, you would never find them.” Some of the images in that cave feature birds a half centimeter (1/5 of an inch) long. Yet when you looked closely, Simek went on to say, “You can see the wing feathers on them.”
Cherokee syllabary inscription from 1828 relating to a stickball ceremony found in Alabama. (Alan Cressler / The Conversation )
Continuity with Modern Native American Art
What is so extraordinary about ancient American cave art is its clear continuity into modern times and thus its decipherability. In several caves in Alabama and Tennessee, early-19th-century inscriptions were written on cave walls in the Cherokee syllabary (as shown in the image above).
Cherokee archaeologists, historians, and language experts have joined forces with archaeologists like Simek to translate these cave writings. They have stated that the caves were considered sacred and spiritual sites and the religious ideas in the writings are similar to those represented by pictures in earlier times.
New cave sites are discovered every year in the USA. And the story of the southeastern dark-cave art discovery process is far from over.