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.

The following essay is excerpted from the latest issue of the Paris Review. This excerpt is available online only in Slate. To read the complete version, click here to purchase the Paris Review in print. Until July 15, Slate readers can enjoy $10 off a  Paris Review subscription by using the code "SLATE" at checkout.

Click here to see photographs of the caves discussed in this essay.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

. Over the past few decades, in Tennessee, archaeologists have unearthed an elaborate cave­-art tradition thousands of years old. The pictures are found in dark­ zone sites—places where the Native American people who made the artwork did so at personal risk, crawling meters or, in some cases, miles underground with cane torches—as opposed to sites in the "twilight zone," speleologists' jargon for the stretch, just beyond the entry chamber, which is exposed to diffuse sunlight. A pair of local hobby cavers, friends who worked for the U.S. Forest Service, found the first of these sites in 1979. They'd been exploring an old root cellar and wriggled up into a higher passage. The walls were covered in a thin layer of clay sediment left there during long­ ago floods and maintained by the cave's unchanging temperature and humidity. The stuff was still soft. It looked at first as though someone had finger­-painted all over, maybe a child—the men debated even saying anything. But the older of them was a student of local history. He knew some of those images from looking at drawings of pots and shell ornaments that emerged from the fields around there: bird men, a dancing warrior figure, a snake with horns. Here were naturalistic animals, too: an owl and turtle. Some of the pictures seemed to have been first made and then ritually mutilated in some way, stabbed or beaten with a stick.

That was the discovery of Mud Glyph Cave, which was reported all over the world and spawned a book and a National Geographic article. No one knew quite what to make of it at the time. The cave's "closest parallel," reported the Christian Science Monitor, "may be caves in the south of France which contain Ice Age art." A team of scholars converged on the site.

The glyphs, they determined—by carbon­dating charcoal from half-­burned slivers of cane—were roughly eight hundred years old and belonged to the Mississippian people, ancestors to many of today's Southeastern and Midwestern tribes. The imagery was classic Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC), meaning it belonged to the vast but still dimly understood religious outbreak that swept the Eastern part of North America around 1200 A.D. We know something about the art from that period, having seen all the objects taken from graves by looters and archaeologists over the years: effigy bowls and pipes and spooky­-eyed, kneeling stone idols; carved gorgets worn by the elite. But these underground paintings were something new, an unknown mode of Mississippian cultural activity. The cave's perpetually damp walls had preserved, in the words of an iconographer who visited the site, an "artistic tradition which has left us few other traces."

That was written twenty-­five years ago, and today there are more than seventy known dark­zone cave sites east of the Mississippi, with new ones turning up every year. A handful of the sites contain only some markings or cross­hatching (lusus Indorum was the antiquarian's term: the Indians' whimsy), but others are quite elaborate, much more so than Mud Glyph. Several are older, too. One of them, the oldest so far, was created around 4000 B.C. The sites range from Missouri to Virginia, and from Wisconsin to Florida, but the bulk lie in Middle Tennessee. Of those, the greater number are on the Cumberland Plateau, which runs at a southwest slant down the eastern part of the state, like a great wall dividing the Appalachians from the interior.

The Plateau is positively worm­-eaten with caves. Pit caves, dome caves, big wide tourist caves, and caves that are just little cracks running back into the stone for a hundred feet—not even a decade ago, explorers announced the discovery of Rumbling Falls Cave, a fifteen­-mile (so far) system that includes a two­-hundred­-foot vertical drop and leads to a chamber they call the Rumble Room, in which you could build a small housing project. All of that is inside the Plateau and in the limestone that skirts its edges.

We were flying along the top of it in a white truck. The archaeologist Jan Simek, whom I'd just met in a parking lot, was driving (Jan as in Jan van Eyck, not Jan as in Brady). He's a professor at the University of Tennessee who, for the past fifteen years, has led the work on the Unnamed Caves, as they're called to protect their locations. We were headed to Eleventh Unnamed. It was a clear day in late winter, so late it had started to look and feel like earliest spring.

****

Simek (pronounced SHIM­-ick) is a thick­-chested guy in his fifties—bushy dark hair mixed with iron gray, sportsman's shades. I'd expected a European from the name, but he grew up in California. His Czech­-born father was a Hollywood character actor, Vasek Simek: He played Soviet premiers, Russian chess players, ambiguously "foreign" scientists. Jan looks like him. His manner is one of friendly sarcasm. He makes fun of my sleek black notebook and offers to get me a waterproof one like his, the kind geologists use.

Simek was unaware of the caves when he came to UT in 1984. Only a few sites had been uncovered at the time. His best-­known work, the research that built his career, was all in France—not in the celebrated art caves, but at Neanderthal habitation sites.

Simek had heard talk of Mud Glyph, however—the book on the cave, edited by his colleague Charles Faulkner, was coming out just as he arrived. When the task fell to him, as a new hire, of recruiting grad students for the TVA to use in its natural­-resource surveys, he made a point of reminding them, before they went out, to check the walls of any caves they found. After years of doing this to no effect, some students burst into his office one evening, talking excitedly about a cave they'd seen, overlooking the Tennessee River, with a spider drawn on one of the walls inside. They competed to sketch it for him, how its body had hung upside down, with the eyes in front. Simek went to the shelf and pulled down a book. He spread it open to a picture of a Mississippian shell gorget with an all but identical spider in the center. "Did it look like this?" he asked.

That was First Unnamed Cave, "still my heart cave," Simek says. When I visited it with him he showed me the spider. Also a strange, humanish figure, with its arms thrown back above its head and long flowing hair. First Unnamed happens to be the youngest of the Unnamed Caves. Its images date from around 1540. The Spanish had been in Florida for a few decades already, slaving. Epidemics were moving across the Southeast in great shattering waves. De Soto and his men came very near that cave in their travels, just at that time. The world of the people who made those glyphs, the Late Mississippian, was already coming apart.

We turned onto a side road, then onto another, more overgrown one, then started hair­pinning down into a valley. Only at the bottom, climbing out and gazing around, did I get a sense of what we'd descended into—it looked as if a giant had taken an ax and planted the blade a mile deep in the ground, then ripped it away. The forested walls went up, up, up on all sides. We started walking across the little narrow patchwork fields, the farm of the people who owned and protected this place. Jan had called them to say we were coming. Overhead was a wedge of blue sky, with storm clouds starting to mass at one end. Thunder filled the coves.

We approached a grotto. A curving, amphitheater­-like hillside went down to a basin. It was Edenic. "No diver has ever been able to get to the bottom of that thing," Jan said, indicating the blue-­black pool of water. Frogs plashed into it at the sound or sight of us. We stepped sideways, following a half-­foot­-wide path through ferns and violet flocks, little white tube­shaped flowers whose name I didn't know. Following a ledge around the pool, we reached the entrance.

Jan struggled with the lock on the gate. It looked like a mean piece of metal. I wondered if they weren't overdoing it—that was before I'd heard all the stories of what some Tennesseans will do to get into caves they've been told not to enter, using dynamite, blowtorches, hitching their trucks to cave gates and attempting to pull them out of hillsides whole. Jan sent me back to the truck for motor oil, to lubricate the lock. I went gladly, jogging no faster than I had to back through that sanctuary, my pristine white caving helmet bouncing on my hip.

****

The gate open, we switched on our headlamps. The same silty runoff made it harder now to get into the cave. We squeezed through on our bellies. The mud had a melted Hershey's quality. It oozed through the zipper in my dollar­-store coveralls. The squeeze got tight enough that, as I wriggled on my stomach, the ceiling was scraping my back. Jan said they'd been forced to dig a couple of people out.

At last we came through and could stand, or stoop. I turned my head to move the beam up and down the wall: a light­-brown cave. Jan had a bigger, more powerful, battery-­powered light. He flashed it around.

"Stoke marks," he said, nodding at a spot on the wall. His line of sight led to a cluster of black dots, like a swarm of black flies that had been smashed all at once into the stone. You could find them throughout the cave. They marked places, Simek said, where the ancient cavers had "ashed" their river­ cane torches. The longer you went without doing that, the smokier it got.

He stopped and waited for me to catch up. He was facing the wall.

"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."

****

We moved forward. The next pictograph, Simek said, was an image that appears in several of the Unnamed Caves: the gruesome Toothy Mouth. A round, severed head with gore spilling out of the neck. Weeping eyes. A big pumpkin grin, probably meant to suggest the receded gums of decomposition. Simek said they tend to see these wherever there are burials. They had found one even in a Woodland cave—that's the period preceding the Mississippian, about which we know even less. But for at least a couple of thousand years, this picture on a cave wall in this country meant "bodies buried here."

Simek had one graduate student who is Cherokee. A good archaeologist, Russ Townsend—he's now the "tribal historic preservation officer" for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Townsend has worked with Jan on plenty of projects, but he has never gone into the caves. I asked him about it. "The Cherokee interpretation is that caves are not to be entered into lightly," he said, "that these must have been bad people to go that deep. That's where they took bad people to leave them. So they can lie on rock and not on the ground. It makes a lot of Cherokee uneasy. The lower world is where everything is mixed up and chaotic and bad. You wouldn't want to go to that place, where the connection between our world and the otherworld is that tenuous."

We entered a large hall. The ceiling was very high, it looked a hundred feet high. It was smooth and pale gray. Simek shone his lamp up and arced it around slowly. "What do you see?" he said.

"Are those mud dauber nests?" I asked. That's what they looked like to me.

"The ceiling," he said, "is studded with three hundred globs of clay."

I stared up with open mouth. I didn't have a good question for that one.

"We said the same thing," he said. "What were they doing?" So a researcher had climbed up and removed one of the globs and taken it back to the lab at UT. They sliced it open. Inside was the charred nubbin of a piece of river cane, like a cigarette filter. "We got a piece of cane about that big," Jan said, indicating his little finger. The Indians had jammed burning stalks of river cane into balls of clay and hurled them at the ceiling.

"They lit up this place like a birthday cake, man!" he said.

"Was it some kind of ceremony or something?"

"Who knows!" he said. "Maybe they were hunting bats."

"What were they doing here?" I asked, as if asking no one.

"Minimally," he said, "making art, burying their dead, lighting it up like a Christmas tree. Maybe hunting bats."

At the back of the cave we ascended a mud slope. There were two bare footprints side by side. Simek said they had shown casts of these to an orthopedic surgeon, without telling him what they were. The doctor said, "That person didn't wear shoes." The toes were splayed.

At the top of the mud bank we saw a final image, the same as the first, but only one woodpecker this time. A charcoal pictograph covered in a transparent flowstone veneer, as if laminated. That was how old these things were. The stone had flowed over the bird, encasing it. This woodpecker was upright, as if working on a tree. Woodpeckers at the beginning, and a woodpecker here. What did it mean?

"End of book," he said.

****

In Simek's office one day, he brought down a couple of matching brown nineteenth-­century­looking volumes. This was Garrick Mallery's Picture Writing of the American Indians, first edition, a treasure of his rock-­art library. He turned to a particular run of pages. Mallery didn't pay all that much attention to the East. None of the early writers on American rock art did. They liked the huge vivid panels out in the Western canyons. The cliff cities, in their ideal desert conditions, are there; you can visit them. Our cities are invisible.

There were, however, a few famous Eastern sites. The Dighton Rock was the best known. Cotton Mather wrote about it; Bishop Berkeley went to see it. It's a big whale­-shaped boulder in the Taunton River near Berkley, Massachusetts. Covered in twisty Native American petroglyphs. Jan showed me the pages in Mallery's book—I'd seen them in my paperback reprint, but these plates were glossy with rich blacks—on which the author had quite ingeniously reproduced more than two hundred years of renderings of this rock. He cropped them all, so that they were the same length and width, and then ran them down the pages in a row, chronologically. It was an historical portal; you could slip into it and get behind the eyes of the American mind for a minute. You could watch it change: in the beginning, the various artists had been trying to make the markings look like "hieroglyphic" writing they knew—Egyptian, Norse, or whatever it was. Or they turned them into anachronistic modern things, a sailboat or a pilgrim. Only as the decades and centuries flip­book by do the lines untangle themselves, and you start to see human shapes, quadrupeds. Still we are far from any meaning. In fact, that's what has taken place. The eye lets go of the desire for meaning; the pictures emerge. Simek was showing me Mallery's pages by way of saying, It's dangerous to read something when you can't really read it. And we can't.

Try to see it. That's hard enough.

****

We went west from Knoxville, toward the Plateau. The fields in Middle Tennessee in October were chilly and green, as if under frosted glass. We ate fast­food biscuits while Simek talked about our destination, Twelfth Unnamed Cave. "This one's really splendid," he said. There were more than three hundred images, some so tiny you had to squint.

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.

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.

****

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."

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.

To read the complete version of this essay, click here to purchase the Paris Review in print. Until July 15, Slate readers can enjoy $10 off a Paris Review subscription by using the code "SLATE" at checkout.

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