The largest Native American rock paintings remained hidden for over 1,000 years

A team of scientists have discovered massive Native American drawings that have remained unseen in an Alabama cave for over 1,000 years. It is the largest known rock art ever discovered in North America.

The art was virtually invisible until researchers explored the cave and used 3D scanning to reveal the works, including one that stretched 11 feet (3.4 meters) in length. A study detailing their findings was published Tuesday in the journal Antiquity.

A large piece of art has been unearthed at 19th Nameless Cave in Alabama, which has been kept anonymous to protect the site from vandalism. Although its location was first discovered in 1998, due to the tightness of the cave, the sprawling art drawn in the mud could not be seen, so it was skipped. But at that time, hundreds of smaller images were found throughout the cave.

This tall humanoid figure appears to be wearing an elaborate costume. Credit: S. Alvarez, J. Simek/Antiquity Publications Ltd.

The giant glyphs may represent the spirits of the underworld and date back to the first millennium AD. Art was created before contact, or before Native Americans encountered outside cultures, according to the study.

Jan F. Simek, Distinguished Professor of Science at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and a team of researchers first stumbled across the giant drawings while working on documenting the interior of the cave, starting in 2017.

“We knew the cave contained pre-contact Native American mud glyphs, and we were running a 3D photogrammetry documentation project to aid management and conservation,” said Simek, lead author of the study. “Very large depictions of cave art cannot be seen in person in the cave due to limited space at the site.”

The process of photogrammetry involves taking thousands of photographs to create a 3D model of something. This gave an accurate record of the location, but had the added benefit of exposing secret artwork, especially given the cave’s very low ceilings. In two months of field work, the team took 16,000 photographs.

During the 3D imaging sessions, the team captured a wide view of the ceiling outside the cave where sunlight enters and uncovered five previously unknown drawings.

Mysterious figures

The use of photogrammetry in this cave and elsewhere could change how scientists discover and understand Native American rock art, including the intentions and meanings behind the drawings.

The researchers were able to virtually manipulate the cave ceiling using their model to study the glyphs in detail and create digital drawings based on the hatching patterns. Four works of art depict humanoid figures in elaborate attire.

One “remarkable human figure” has a long body with outstretched arms and rounded shoulders. According to the researchers, it has a complex pattern on the torso, consisting of lines of different styles, which probably indicates the type of clothing or regalia. Lines follow the figure, suggesting the presence of a belt, and another line appears, depicting the figure symbolically emerging from the rock.

This enigmatic figure is mostly swirling lines with a round head at one end and possibly a rattlesnake tail at the other.

This enigmatic figure is mostly swirling lines with a round head at one end and possibly a rattlesnake tail at the other. Credit: S. Alvarez, J. Simek/Antiquity Publications Ltd.

Another figure has a square head with lines running from above, a rectangular torso and one leg. On some figurative images, a pattern or a belt is depicted on the torso. One has a triangular head with ovals coming out on either side that looks like an “animal head with pointed ears”, but the arms look “distinctly human”.

The individual figure is made up of many sinuous and curved lines and has a rattlesnake-like tail, but researchers “don’t know what it is”.

The fifth and largest figure is a diamond-backed rattlesnake with clear patterns similar to the eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake. The length from head to tail is 11 feet (3.4 meters).

The diamond snake is the largest rattlesnake native to the Americas and was sacred to the indigenous peoples of the southeastern United States.

The source of inspiration for the figures depicted remains a mystery.

“Because we haven’t seen the like of them before, we don’t know the identity of these ancient cave art anthropomorphs,” the researchers wrote in their study. “They are not recognizable characters from either the ethnographically recorded stories of the Native Americans of the Southeast, nor from the archaeologically known iconographic material.”

But the figures do share spiritual themes – such as figures displaying supernatural characteristics – with other known rock art in the region, so they may represent characters from “previously unknown religious narratives, probably from the Middle Woodland period” between 200 B.C. . and 600 AD .

This snake-like figure has a round head and diamond-shaped markings on its body, which suggest that it is a diamond-backed rattlesnake.

This snake-like figure has a round head and diamond-shaped markings on its body, which suggest that it is a diamond-backed rattlesnake. Credit: S. Alvarez, J. Simek/Antiquity Publications Ltd.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is how the artwork was created. Although the entrance is 32.8 feet (10 m) high and 49.2 feet (15 m) wide, the art chamber has a low ceiling only 1.9 feet (0.6 m) from the cave floor. This means that whoever created the art had to crouch or crawl through the chamber, and the drawings could only be seen by lying on the floor of the cave.

“They are so large that the creators had to create images without being able to see them in their entirety,” the researchers write. “So the creators were working in their imagination rather than in an unobstructed visual perspective.”

Secret symbolism

The work of art was created at a time when the indigenous tribes were abandoning gathering and turning to farming and building permanent settlements.

These tribes used their surroundings to honor their religious and spiritual beliefs, erecting mounds as pathways for spirits to reach the upper world and using caves as sacred sites that served as pathways to the underworld.

“We know that Native Americans changed their landscapes on a very large scale to connect the living with the natural and supernatural worlds and with various elements of these worlds,” the researchers note in the study. “Thus, the large figures painted in the 19th Nameless Cave probably represent the spirits of the underworld, their power and importance expressed in their shape, size and context. They were elements of the wider sacred Native American spiritual landscape prior to contact.”

Smaller glyphs depict a) a figure of a coiled snake, b) a wasp, c) a stylized bird, and d) an anthropomorphic figure surrounded by swirling lines.

Smaller glyphs depict a) a figure of a coiled snake, b) a wasp, c) a stylized bird, and d) an anthropomorphic figure surrounded by swirling lines. Credit: A. Kressler / Antiquity Publications Ltd.

Although this creation is similar to the large open-air rock art found in Utah and other locations throughout North America, it is unusual to find such large paintings hidden in a cave, so their presence was completely “unexpected”.

The first rock paintings in North America were found in Tennessee in 1979 and were between 750 and 800 years old. Since this initial discovery, 89 other sites have been discovered in southeastern North America. The oldest site is 7,000 years old, but most of the rock art was created between 800 and 1600 AD.

Although the 19th Nameless Cave is well studied, the researchers believe that they may be just starting out, as these cave paintings were previously overlooked. But the cave includes more than 5 kilometers of underground passages.

“() Nameless Cave 19 is the richest of all known cave art sites in southeastern North America,” the researchers said.

“These images differ from much of the ancient art seen so far in the American Southeast and suggest that our understanding of this art may be based on incomplete data,” Simek said.

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