Early Native Americans: America’s Oldest Cave and Rock Art Discovered in Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau

Archaeologists,Jan Simek, Alan Cressler, Nicholas Herrmann and Sarah Sherwood from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee and Mississippi State University, have discovered America’s oldest cave and rock art that has remained hidden for more than 6,000 years. The faded images were found in Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau and are believed part of the most widespread collection of such art ever found in the U.S. These include the Dunbar Cave and Mud Glyph Cave in Clarksville. Rock art is commonly thought to have been drawn by Native Americans and other races as part of rituals and ceremonies. Mud was traditionally used by Native Americans in the south east of the country because it was readily available and was seen as an ideal canvas by prehistoric cave artists.

A total of 21 counties lie along the the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee.

As shown below, some of the pictures were drawn using shallow lines made with a pointed tool and these show events such as hunting, or depict animals that the Native Americans would have lived with and eaten. Other images are more elaborate, depicting mythical creatures and representing the Native’s spiritual beliefs.

This image shows drawings of canids - wild dog-like creatures that included wolves, foxes and jackals - found in the 60th Unnamed Cave at the site of the Tennessee Cumberland PlateauThis image shows drawings of canids – wild dog-like creatures that included wolves, foxes and jackals – found in the 60th Unnamed Cave at the site of the Tennessee Cumberland Plateau. Animal images, such as quadrupeds and reptiles, are rare in open air art work but common in dark caves.

According to a study in archaeology review journal, Antiquity, this cave drawing was found in the open air at Ruby Bluffs.This cave drawing was found in the open air at Ruby Bluffs and shows ‘a probable Mississippian period dancer,’ according to a study in Antiquity, a quarterly review of world archaeology. The image was enhanced, bottom left, using Dstretch – a technology used to accentuate cave pictographs.

Concentric circle pictograph is shown next to an anthropomorph. It was found in the southern Cumberland Plateau.

Pictograph of a concentric circle (left). These are thought to represent religious, spiritual motifs or celestial beings. It is shown next to Anthropomorphic rock art – drawings with a ‘human form’.

Rayed circles with crosses inside, found on the wall of the Dunbar Cave in Tennessee. Rayed circles with crosses inside found on the wall of the Dunbar Cave in Tennessee. According to the study, rayed circles are a ‘classic Mississippian icon’. Circles are common in caves, usually shown as sun pictographs.

The author of the study claims that this rock art shows birds, thought to be turkeys. They were found in the 7th Unnamed Cave, TennesseeThe author of the study claims that this rock art shows birds, thought to be turkeys. The drawings were made using a fine pointed tool and consist of shallow lines. They were found in the 7th Unnamed cave in the Cumberland Plateau and are only a few centimetres long.

This image, enhanced by Dstretch, shows a winged pictograph taken from the Waterfall Shelter in the south Cumberland Plateau. This image, enhanced by Dstretch, shows a winged pictograph taken from the Waterfall Shelter in the south Cumberland Plateau. According to the Antiquity report, pictures of avimorphs – bird-like creatures – are rare in open air sites. Iron oxide would have been used to create the red colour of this image.

This Mississippian petroglyph panel was discovered in the 11th Unnamed Cave in central Cumberland Plateau.

This 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. A real-life monolithic axe is shown as an inset.

A Mississippian period mud glyph warrior, left, is shown as having talons for feet. It was found in the Mud Glyph Cave in the Tennessee River Valley.
 A Mississippian period mud glyph warrior, left, was found in the Mud Glyph Cave in the Tennessee River Valley carved into stone. Mud glyphs are images traced into wet mud on cave walls and banks and an artist’s impression of what this warrior would look like it shown as an inset.  Mississippian Period mud glyph caves  are elaborate and can include hundreds of images.
Pit and groove lines from Indian Rockhouse in the central Cumberland Plateau.
Pit and groove lines found in the Indian Rockhouse section of the central Cumberland Plateau are pictured. Ethnographic evidence suggests that these types of rock art were associated with the World Renewal ceremonies that ‘restored the world to the way it was meant to be by the spirit people.’ The ceremonies were designed to improve happiness, ward off disease and control the weather.
This image of a ceremonial monolithic axe was found on a rockshelter in the central Cumberland Plateau.This image of a ceremonial monolithic axe was found on a rockshelter in the central Cumberland Plateau. Stone axes, pictured inset, were used in Native American Mississippian cultures. Evidence of monolithic axes are the rarest form of ceremonial celt and were used as a symbol of rank and authority.

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