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Mythical Creatures And Celestial Beings Depicted In
North America's Oldest Rock Art

8 March, 2014

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Follow us: - Archaeologists believe these are the oldest known rock carvings in North America. These intriguing depictions of otherworldly beings were strategically placed to reveal a cosmological puzzle.

The paintings and carvings have been scattered around the caves and bluff faces of the Cumberland Plateau, a division of the Appalachian Mountains extending from southern West Virginia to northern Alabama.

The rock art - left behind by the ancestors of the Native American nations of the Southeast - was just waiting to be discovered.

Now a group of scientists, led by anthropology professor Jan Simek, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville have proposed that rock art changed the natural landscape to reflect a three-dimensional universe central to the religion of the prehistoric Mississippian period.

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An upright bird figure has arms and hands and holds ceremonial weapons aloft, flanked by axes with blades coming out of human faces, in this Tennessee cave painting from the 14th century. Image credit: University of Tennessee

"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."

A cross? A comet? A star? This symbol, found in Dunbar Cave in Clarksville, Tennessee, is commonly seen in religious iconography from the 1300s. Image credit: University of Tennessee

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This pattern with crosses discovered inside the Dunbar Cave's wall in Tennessee. According to the study, rayed circles are a 'classic Mississippian icon'. Circles are common in caves, usually shown as sun pictographs. Image credit: University of Tennessee

"What's part interesting is it spans an area literally from the Kentucky line down into northern Alabama," Simek said. Most of them are between 500 and 900 years old, but radiocarbon dating indicates one painting of a hunter in east-central Tennessee was laid down 6,000 years ago.

According to Simek, there might be ancient rock art in 400 or 500 of the 9,000 caves recorded in the limestone and sandstone bedrock of Tennessee.

That would make it the oldest representation in North America known to date, he said.

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 art sites, predominantly found in caves, feature otherworldly characters, supernatural serpents and dogs that accompanied dead humans on the path of souls," the scientists wrote in their paper.

The images are largely painted in black, a color associated with death.

21 counties lie along the the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. It contains 280 caves - 21 of which are described as 'extensive' in size.

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An image of a horned owl was impressed into the wet clay of Mud Glyph Cave, Tennessee, around 1300 AD. Image credit: University of Tennessee

"There's a small cave in the middle part of Tennessee, a very small cave that contains over 400 engraved images that are extraordinary," Simek said.

"Some of them are tiny -- so small that if you didn't know how to look for them, you would never find them."

"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.

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This cave painting found in eastern Tennessee, depicting a hunter with a four-legged animal, is more than 6,000 years old -- the oldest yet known in North America. Image credit: University of Tennessee

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.

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Tis Mississippian petroglyph panel was discovered in the 11th Unnamed Cave in central Cumberland Plateau. The faint scratches in the middle of the image depict a bird holding ceremonial maces - an ornamented staff traditionally made of metal or wood and carried in civic ceremonies. The clearer white image on the left depicts a ceremonial monolithic axe transforming into a human face. Image credit: University of Tennessee/Antiquity/Caters News Agency

"That's looking into some of the most dramatic parts of the sky, especially in the spring and summer months," Simek said. "And we know their relationship was such that they paid attention to celestial phenomena, but they also believed in a universe that was layered."

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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An ancient Native American pictograph found on a rock in northern Alabama features a long curving line and a faded circle behind. Image credit: University of Tennessee

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.

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A small number of open air sites contain glyphs that might represent avimorphs, or bird-like creatures, including an pictograph in the Waterfall Shelter in the south Cumberland region that may be a 'stylised winged creature,' according to researchers. Image credit: University of Tennessee

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.

"Very often some of the humans that are depicted outside of caves are doing otherworldly kinds of things," Simek said.

"Very often, their hands and feet are extended, and they have very elongated digits, as if they're reaching out of the rock or into the rock." Many Native Americans believed boundaries between the spirit world and the natural were permeable, and things like rocks, trees and water sources -- including caves -- "were places those boundaries could be crossed."

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