America's ancient cave art: Mysterious drawings, thousands of years old, offer a glimpse of lost Native American cultures and traditions.

America's ancient cave art: Mysterious drawings, thousands of years old, offer a glimpse of lost Native American cultures and…

America's ancient cave art: Mysterious drawings, thousands of years old, offer a glimpse of lost Native American cultures and…

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March 21 2011 6:57 AM

America's Ancient Cave Art

Deep in the Cumberland Plateau, mysterious drawings, thousands of years old, offer a glimpse of lost Native American cultures and traditions.

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"First image," he said, tightening his beam. "Double woodpeckers." Faint white lines etched into the limestone. The birds were instantly recognizable. One on top of the other.

A conspicuous percentage of the caves, Simek said, had birds for their opening images.

"What does it mean?" I asked.


"We don't know," he said. I learned that this was his default answer to the question, What does it mean? He might then go on to give you a plausible and interesting theory, but only after saying, "We don't know." It wasn't grumpiness—it was a theoretical stance.

Woodpeckers could be related to war, he said. In other Native American myths they carry the souls of the dead to the afterworld.

We advanced. There were pips—a small brown kind of bat—hanging on the wall, wrapped in themselves. Condensation droplets on their wings shone in our lights and made the little creatures look jewel-encrusted. Jan, kneeling down to peer at something lower on the wall, got one on his back. He asked me to brush it off. I took my helmet and tried to suggest it away—the bat detached and flew into the darkness.

Jan went a few yards and then lay down on his back on a sort of embankment in the cave. I did likewise. We were both looking up. He scanned his light along a series of pictures. It felt instinctively correct to call it a panel—it had sequence, it was telling some kind of story. There was an ax or a tomahawk with a human face and a crested topknot, like a mohawk (the same topknot we'd just seen on the woodpeckers). Next to the ax perched a warrior eagle, with its wings spread, brandishing swords. And last a picture of a crown mace, a thing shaped like an elongated bishop in chess, meant to represent a symbolic weapon, possibly held by the chiefly elite during public rituals. It's a "type artifact" of the Mississippian sphere, meaning that, wherever you find it, you have the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, or, as it used to be called (and still is by archaeologists when they think no one's listening), the Southern Death Cult. In this case the object appeared to be morphing into a bird of prey.

What did it mean?

"We don't know," Simek said. "What it is clearly about is transformation."

Everything in it was turning into everything else.


When it comes to meaning, not everyone is as skeptical as Simek. Over the past decade a group of scholars, led by the archaeologist F. Kent Reilly in Texas, has been using a combination of historical records— nineteenth­-century ethnography, mainly—to work their way back into the Mississippian worldview, with its macabre warrior gods and monsters and belief in a three­-part cosmos: the Upper World, This World, the Lower World. The SECC Working Group, as they are called, argues that more of the Mississippian culture survived into the historic period than has been allowed (Europeans met them, after all: the embers of Mississippian society weren't extinguished until the French sold the last Great Sun, chief of the Natchez, into slavery in 1731). Reilly and his colleagues have modeled the group explicitly on the Maya Hieroglyphic Workshop at the University of Texas, an epigraphers' seminar that helped decipher the Mayan glyphs, and so opened Mayan society (slightly) to our comprehension.

In the North American case, however, we have no language to crack. Our most technically advanced Native American society, the High Mississippian—a culture that built mounds nearly equal in grandeur to the stone ruins in Mexico, but of earth, so they faded—left us nothing to read. That has always driven scholars of North American prehistory a little bit crazy. More than one crackpot "Mound Builder" theory revolved around a mysterious writing tablet that surfaced in an Indian mound, covered in Hebrew or Phoenician letters. There's even one nineteenth­century thinker, the cracked Kentucky genius Constantine Rafinesque, who made real and universally recognized strides toward decoding the Mayan language and forged an otherwise nonexistent North American written language, the Lenape. He concocted a whole origin myth for the tribe.

I met Kent Reilly in Chicago several years ago. He gave me a tour of the "Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand" exhibit at the Art Institute. It was the first truly representative display of Eastern Native American art ever staged. It included the major pieces—large statuary, Mica cutouts, human face pots from Arkansas—but even someone knowledgeable in the field might have been stunned by some of the lesser­-known artifacts: the effigy of a human thumb, taken from a two-­thousand-­year-­old Hopewell site, or the so­-called Frog vessel, a red Mississippian bowl that is crawling with little naturalistic green frogs. The Working Group had shaped the exhibition's catalogue.

Reilly described some of the group's achievements. Using intense motif analysis, two of its members identified an exotic-­looking geometrical shape, which appears on various Mississippian objects, as a butterfly. They matched the number of segmented dots on its uncoiling body—which you can see if you stare—to an actual species. Re-examining gorgets from the Etowah mound in Georgia, they noticed that the head, on a certain human­-headed serpent, appeared to be the same head that a falcon-­warrior was holding on another gorget. "We think we may have identified a new deity complex—based purely on artwork," Reilly said.

Simek doesn't go in for that talk. He likes data. He likes "200 meters into the cave we found a pictograph of a dog, charcoal, oriented vertically," and so forth. He doesn't want to talk about whether the dog was leading dead souls along the spirit path—although dogs did that in more than one Southeastern religion. He doesn't like the "maybe" place where that leaves you. The societies investigated by those ethnographers had undergone immense shocks and disruptions since the Mississippian period, most obviously with the European Encounter, but even before that. High Mississippian culture fell apart just before the Spanish reached Florida, not just after as you'd expect, given the diseases and the massacres—it's a riddle of American archaeology. Simek simply didn't feel we could get back through the static of all that with anything like a scientific certainty.

"Corn, beans, and squash," said Reilly, when I ran Simek's criticisms by him. He was referring to the tedium of anthropology­lab dry data. Meaning, as I took it: If they want to stick to the boring stuff, let them.

This was not boring, though, whatever we were seeing. I lay there just staring at the panel, in the cave's cool atmosphere, which you hold in your skin as a physical memory if you grew up in Karst country like I did, southern Indiana, childhood trips to Wyandotte Cave, when they'd cut out the lights—"That is total darkness, kids"—and have you put your hand in front of your face, to make you see that you couldn't see it.

"My colleagues argue about, 'What is the SECC? What does it mean?' " Simek said.

"I bring them here. I mean, look at these things. This is the Southern Cult."