Cumberland Plateau cave art reveals native people's lives

photo This image in North Alabama depicts a human figure, possibly the shaman/artist himself. Scientist Jan Simek says the figure is interacting with the circle and cross symbol believed to represent the multiple levels of spiritual existence, and the shaman might have been demonstrating how and where he literally crossed the boundary to the underworld inside where the other figure to the right awaits. Contributed Photo by Alan Cressler.

ROCK ART SITES Below are the numbers of rock art sites in the Cumberland Plateau region according to location and technique. Petroglyphs are engravings; mud glyphs are traced into wet cave soil; and pictographs are made with pigments derived from charcoal or iron oxide. Site type // Petroglyphs // Pictographs // Mud glyphs // Total Cave sites // 24 // 16 // 10 // 50 Open air sites // 16 // 28 // 0 // 44 Source: Antiquity Publications Ltd.

In the darkness of a Tennessee cave, hundreds or even thousands of years ago, a native of the Cumberland Plateau traced the image of a bird in wet mud.

The mud is still wet today and still seems to retain the warmth of its creator's fingers.

A careless swipe could erase it all.

The artist, who could have been a man or woman, lived in one of many centralized, agricultural communities in the Cumberland Plateau region where the population numbered in the tens of thousands.

In the caves along the edges of the plateau, the artist carried a torch to see in the absolute darkness and a supply of charcoal to create images on the rock.

The bird image, called a "mud glyph," is among nearly 100 rock and cave art images carbon-dated between 500 and 6,000 years old that are being cataloged and researched by the paper's co-authors, Jan Simek of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and president emeritus of the UT System; Sarah Sherwood of Sewanee: The University of the South; Alan Cressler of the U.S. Geological Survey and Nick Herrmann of Mississippi State University.

This study represents two decades of work in Tennessee. Simek, and others, traced rock and cave art deep inside the earth. The drawings, researchers believe, are linked to the spiritual understandings of the people who created them.

"We started to see a relationship," Simek said. "This artwork was mapped onto the landscape in a way, we believe, that reflected basic tenets of prehistoric religious beliefs."

For many Southeastern natives, the universe had three distinct dimensions. There was an upper world in the sky where celestial bodies and forces of weather influenced humans. Humanity, plants and animals were in the middle world, and the lower world was a place of darkness and danger.

But boundaries were permeable and dynamic. There were creatures that could cross between, such as fish, frogs, bats, wasps and birds, according to a research paper on Cumberland Plateau cave and rock art published in the June edition of the British archeological journal Antiquity.

The Cumberland Plateau -- mostly between the Tennessee-Kentucky border and North Alabama -- was the artists' canvas. The location, elevation and orientation of the images were intentional, not random.

"They were transforming the landscape from a natural one to one that reflected their conception of the cosmos," Simek said.

Most date to the latest part of the Mississippian Period, about 1100 A.D. to about 1500 A.D., according to Simek.

But the art in question ranges in North America from the Archaic Period, from 8000 B.C. to 1000 B.C., into the late-Mississippian Period, 800 A.D. to 1600 A.D., just after the arrival of Europeans.

The people of the Archaic were hunters and gatherers whose settlements reflected an adaptation to the natural resources of the region, according to the University of Tennessee's McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture.

At the time the mud glyph was drawn 6,000 years ago, people in Tennessee lived in sites that varied in function from base settlements to transient hunting or collecting camps.

Evidence of the first Tennesseans is documented in Williamson County, where Ice Age mastodon skeletons were found with clear-cut marks on the bones that were radiocarbon dated to about 12,000 years ago.

The oldest cave art found in Tennessee, a charcoal image of a hunter and a small animal discovered near Knoxville about four years ago, dates back at least 6,000 years. Art in open-air sites that are exposed to weathering is thought to be more recent, since it's not likely to remain intact as long.

"The fact that the scale of landscape alteration was very big is not surprising because the people who were doing this lived large, they lived on a large scale," Simek said.

Moccasin Bend in Chattanooga is an example of a Mississippian settlement. Pyramids and mounds were part of the inhabitants' religious practice and were alterations of the landscape in response to what they believed the cosmos was like.

Cave art, specifically, required certain "technical" abilities that speak to the planned, intentional nature of the images. The artists had to cross deadly pits, underwater streams, using an artificial source of light in the pitch darkness.

"They provisioned themselves with what they needed to do it," Simek said.

"To give you a sense of just how committed they are to this, there's artwork in a cave in Northern Tennessee more than a mile underground," he said. "We have to go across deep chasms, we have to go behind waterfalls and find passageways that are very obscure. We have to crawl on our bellies and climb up through chimneys that, if you don't know where you're going, you're not going to get there. They got there and went back there barefoot. We know that because they left footprints."

That site dates to about 3,500 years ago.

"Not everybody gets to see these," he said. "In contrast, the artwork that's in the open air is much more open. It may be that more people get to see these."

That suggests that some images were private somehow, and others were public, he said. Some sites and images may have been intended for "specialists," or what might be called priests, who led ceremonies and other activities.

"Together it comprises the religious whole that they're engaged in," he said. "It becomes easier to understand the idea of the landscape being transformed into a religious place. It's the 'whole' that's important."

Simek said several Cherokee who were interested in their own religion offered that idea during a discussion he had with them about their religious beliefs.

Co-author Sherwood, of the University of the South, said native people's reliance on agriculture possibly caused them to need more spiritual support and interaction.

Earlier hunter-gatherer cultures likely had less stress, though their lives might have been shorter, while their later Mississippian descendants had greater risk and stress in their reliance on agriculture.

"Agriculturalists have to commit far more of their time to subsistence strategies than hunter-gatherers," she said.

Increasing religious activities might have been related to greater risk of the shift toward agriculture, she said.

"Most of the art was late in prehistory, much later," Sherwood said. "That's when risk is the highest. That's when competition is the highest. You see a big increase in warfare, population, and that's when cosmology may have become all the more important."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569.