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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It wasn't just this site, either. There were a handful of caves (now there are more) in that area—Twelfth was one—that are similar to one another but unlike anything else they'd seen. Unlike anything anyone had seen. They were neither Woodland nor Mississippian in any familiar way, though their dates (around 1160, in this case) put them right at the Woodland/ Mississippian threshold.

He suspected these particular caves were a holdover of some localized, regional Woodland culture, from before it was swept away or homogenized by the spread of the Death Cult.

We drove bumping through a gate and straight into a field—another farm, another site that had been protected by discreet landowners. We geared up and walked across a stubbled field, adjusting our steps to miss clusters of cattle crap and white mushrooms. After a few hundred yards we started to trend downward, gently but noticeably. We were entering an ancient "sink," a place where a chamber in the limestone had broken through and left a depression. At the center of this big green bowl was a more severe pit, like a crater. Thick trees grew around it. We clambered down over some rubble.

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Jan saw muddy footprints. "Whose are these?"

A floor cavity just inside the cave mouth: "That's fresh. That's pot-­diggers."

There was a cola can on a rock above the pits. It was still warm. Simek picked it up and sniffed it, said, "Kerosene." They had heard his truck. They'd just run off.

We entered the twilight zone; the sunlit world was now a gaping hole at our backs. Jan switched on the magic wand. He was different in this cave; he didn't talk much. When I asked him about it later, he said he'd made more mistakes in that cave than anywhere he'd ever worked, because for the first hour and a half he was totally freaked out. I let my eyes adjust to the wand light. I had been in four or five Unnamed Caves by then and was learning to look at cave walls differently, more patiently. I never got very good at it, but I could see what others had found.

It was easy to see what had so impressed Simek about this place. You could look through any number of coffee-­table books on prehistoric Native American art from the Southeast and see absolutely nothing that looked like these pictures. We saw birds, yes, but this seemed to be a sort of box bird—its square body was feathered. Now there were more of them.

A sun glyph, just as the sunlight disappeared.

Moving in, the creatures were changing. These weren't birds, but they were related to the birds; they seemed to emerge out of them; they were other box beings of some kind.

Now we saw box persons in juxtaposition to more natural-looking humans. Once again the glyphs were exchanging imagery, echoing and rhyming with one another.

The tunnels got lower, narrower. Our faces were inches from the cave walls. We encountered weird paddle­handed creatures with long wavy arms. I began to feel that I was inside a hallucination, not that I was hallucinating myself—I was working very hard, in that cramped space, to write down Jan's few cryptic remarks—but that I was experiencing someone else's dream, which had been engineered for me, or rather not for me but for some other, very different people to progress through. It may have been shamanic. There's a spring in that cave, Simek said, that can start to sound like voices, after you've been in there for a while.

"It's composed like a mural," he said. He thought it might be an origin myth, or a way of indoctrinating the young into the religion of the tribe. I looked at him. For once he seemed as overwhelmed as I generally felt in the Unnamed Caves. He was still saying, "We don't know," but now it was coming at the end rather than the beginning of his riffs.

At one place in the tunnel, there was a birthing scene. "A triptych," Simek said. Box person on the left, with a square head and long alien arms. She has concentric circles in her belly. Distended labia. Appearing to deliver a tiny human being. She's holding hands with a more conventional anthropomorphic figure.

Not far off the floor, in a close tunnel, a dancing man with some kind of head regalia and a huge erect penis.

And now we arrived at the panel of birds. Tiny birds, each about the size of a silver dollar. Turkey. Hawk. At least one small songbird. Very finely etched into the limestone with a flint tool. Another cave that began and ended in birds.

Outside and resting before the hike back to the truck, Simek said, "Think about it. What was there none of in that cave?"

I had no answer. Hadn't there been everything in that cave?

"Out of more than three hundred images, there wasn't a single weapon anywhere," he said. "We have here an early Mississippian art in which there are no images of violence, where the birds are pure birds, not linked to war—they're in flight. Even the human figures are not obviously warriors."

Also there had been women and sex in that cave. I thought about it. No women and sex in any of the other caves.

"The old­-time religion," Jan said.

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