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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Since I stopped following Simek and the CART crew, they've found several more sites on or next to the Plateau that seem to contain imagery from this previously unknown tradition. Some of them are even further out, stylistically. One is full of those little naturalistic birds, hundreds of petroglyphs, turkey­cocks flying everywhere. In another cave they found, carved into a ceiling, a human-like figure. His torso is a bent rectangle with Xs inside. His arms are scarecrowy and come off at ninety­-degree angles. He has a round head with rabbit ears sticking out of it. His feet have long flowy toes, vaguely reminiscent of the paddle hands back at Twelfth Unnamed.

The sun is coming out of his belly. "That's the most succinct way to say it," Jan told me. "The sun is coming out of his belly."

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One night on the phone he said they'd found a site—it was just outside Knoxville, not far from his house—with a hunting scene in it, a charcoal dark-­zone pictograph of a man hunting a deer. They extracted a microflake of carbon. The date came back: six thousand years old. They didn't believe it. Sometimes the organic material left over in the limestone, the proof of its biological origins (limestone is essentially prehistoric shell), will leach out and contaminate the samples. They tested the stone. No such material.

The weapon the man in the picture is holding may be a spear. But when you throw a spear, you keep your nonthrowing arm in the air. This person has his off­-arm down at his side. That's what you do when you throw an atlatl, the spear­flinging weapon that preceded the bow and arrow.

There survive, as far as I can determine, no other images of people using atlatls, anywhere in the world, New or Old. This would be the only one. A weapon that kept our species in meat for thirty thousand years and has something to do with our dominance on the planet. The hunter who holds it is just releasing the missile from its shaft.

Two thousand years ago a Woodland explorer, a contemporary of the artists who made those intricate panels of birds, might have passed this little picture—farther from his own time even than he is from ours—and wondered who made it, or what it meant.

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John Jeremiah Sullivan is the Paris Review's Southern editor.