New Research on Ancient Southeast US Cave Art

October 12, 2021

In 1980, ancient cave art in the Southeast was found for the first time. The initial discovery was made in a cave near Knoxville, Tennessee. Since then, 92 dark-zone cave art sites have been discovered across the Mid-West and Eastern USA. The first cave art was named Mud Glyph Cave, and the art stretches back to 10,000-1000 BCE. The earliest are simple mostly abstract motifs, although some representational pictures have also been found there.

During the Woodland Period (1000 BCE-1000 CE) mythical creatures like bird-humans appear.

During the Mississippian Period (1000 CE-1500 CE) was the most prolific period with religious symbolism including spirits and mythical animals, and stories were being told.

Archaeologists are working with the present day Native Americans to discern the meanings of the art.

Archaeologists have divided south-eastern dark-zone cave art into three categories: mud glyphs, which are drawings traced into pliable mud surfaces preserved in caves; petroglyphs, which are drawings carved into the limestone of the cave walls; and pictographs, which are paintings on the cave walls, usually made with charcoal-based pigments. In some caves one can find two or even three of these categories.

Cherokee archaeologists, historians, and language experts have joined forces with archaeologists to translate these cave writings.

The dark-zone cave art is associated with death, transformation and renewal. They feature otherworldly characters, supernatural serpents and dogs that accompanied dead humans on the path of souls. The images are largely painted in black, a color associated with death.