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Prehistoric Art Maps Early Native American Cosmological Belief

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Rayed circles with crosses inside found on the wall of the Dunbar Cave in Tennessee. According to the study, rayed circles are a ‘classic Mississippian icon’. Circles are common in caves, usually shown as sun pictographs

 

 

It is likely some of the most widespread and oldest art in the United States. Pieces of rock art dot the Appalachian Mountains, and research by University of Tennessee, Knoxville, anthropology professor Jan Simek finds each engraving or drawing is strategically placed to reveal a cosmological puzzle.

Recently, the discoveries of prehistoric rock art have become more common. With these discoveries comes a single giant one—all these drawing and engravings map the prehistoric peoples’ cosmological world. The research led by Simek, president emeritus of the UT system and a distinguished professor of science, is published in this month’s edition of the journal Antiquity. The paper is co-authored by Nick Herrmann of Mississippi State University, Alan Cressler of the U.S. Geological Survey and Sarah Sherwood of The University of the South.

The researchers proposed that rock art changed the natural landscape to reflect a three-dimensional universe central to the religion of the prehistoric Mississippian period.

“Our findings provide a window into what Native American societies were like beginning more than 6,000 years ago,” said Simek. “They tell us that the prehistoric peoples in the Cumberland Plateau, a section of the Appalachian Mountains, used the rather distinctive upland environment to map their conceptual universe onto the natural world in which they lived.”

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A study, published in Antiquity, a quarterly review of world archaeology, discusses the most recent discovery of the art in the Cumberland Plateau as well as previous cave art and rock discoveries across the state of Tennessee. These include the Dunbar Cave and Mud Glyph Cave in Clarksville.

Rock art is commonly thought to have been drawn by Native Americans and other races as part of rituals and ceremonies.

The researchers claim that some of the pictures discovered remain extremely fragile because they were drawn into mud.

Mud was traditionally used by Native Americans in the south east of the country because it was readily available and was seen as an ideal canvas by prehistoric cave artists.

Herrmann said: ‘Human images are often shown in activities suggesting heroic or ceremonial action, flying, transforming into animal shapes or reaching through the rock surface.’

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This cave drawing was found in the open air at Ruby Bluffs and shows ‘a probable Mississippian period dancer,’ according to a study in archaeology review journal, Antiquity. The image was enhanced, bottom left, using Dstretch – a technology used to accentuate cave pictographs

According to the study, the researchers documentation of Tennessee rock art sites has led to a number of themes being spotted.

The most common motif in open air rock art was a human figure or anthropomorph. Open air anthropomorphs were ‘simply rendered, but sometimes they show details like eyes or horns and often have large hands with exaggerated fingers.’

Anthropomorphs are also depicted in petroglyphs and are one of the most common elements seen in caves, appearing first during the Archaic period. Woodland period sites also contain human images.

Simek and his team analyzed 44 open- air art sites where the art is exposed to light and 50 cave art sites in the Cumberland Plateau using nondestructive, high-tech tools, such as a high-resolution laser scanner. Through analysis of the depictions, colors, and spatial organization, they found that the sites mimic the Southeastern native people’s cosmological principles.

“The cosmological divisions of the universe were mapped onto the physical landscape using the relief of the Cumberland Plateau as a topographic canvas,” said Simek.

The “upper world” included celestial bodies and weather forces personified in mythic characters that exerted influences on the human situation. Mostly open-air art sites located in high elevations touched by the sun and stars feature these images. Many of the images are drawn in the color red, which was associated with life.

The “middle world” represented the natural world. A mixture of open air and cave art sites hug the middle of the plateau and feature images of people, plants and animals of mostly secular character.

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This image shows drawings of canids – wild dog-like creatures that included wolves, foxes and jackals – found in the 60th Unnamed Cave at the site of the Tennessee Cumberland Plateau. Animal images, such as quadrupeds and reptiles, are rare in open air art work but common in dark caves

The “lower world” was characterized by darkness and danger, and was associated with death, transformation and renewal. The art sites, predominantly found in caves, feature otherworldly characters, supernatural serpents and dogs that accompanied dead humans on the path of souls. The inclusion of creatures such as birds and fish that could cross the three layers represents the belief that the boundaries were permeable. Many of these images are depicted in the color black, which was associated with death.

“This layered universe was a stage for a variety of actors that included heroes, monsters and creatures that could cross between the levels,” Simek said. Interestingly, weapons are rarely featured in any of the art sites, though there are a few, seen below.

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Simek said the scale of the rendering is most impressive, noting the Cumberland Plateau was a sacred setting, spanning hundreds of miles, in which individual sites were only parts of a greater conceptual whole.

The art sites, predominantly found in caves, feature otherworldly characters, supernatural serpents and dogs that accompanied dead humans on the path of souls. The inclusion of creatures such as birds and fish that could cross the three layers represents the belief that the boundaries were permeable. Many of these images are depicted in the color black, which was associated with death. The finding is published in this month’s edition of the journal Antiquity.

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