Massive Native American drawings – which lay unseen in an Alabama cave for more than 1,000 years – have been uncovered by a team of scientists. It is the largest known rock art ever discovered in North America.
The large artwork was discovered inside the unnamed 19th cave in Alabama, which has been kept anonymous to protect the site from vandalism. Although its location was first found in 1998, the narrow confines of the cave made the sprawling art, drawn in the mud, impossible to see, so it was missed. But hundreds of smaller images have been discovered throughout the cave at this time.
This tall human figure appears to be wearing an intricate costume. Credit: S. Alvarez, J. Simek/Antiquity Publications Ltd
The giant glyphs may represent spirits from the underworld and have been dated to the first millennium AD. The art was created before contact, or before Native Americans encountered outside cultures, according to the study.
Jan F. Simek, a prominent science professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and a team of researchers first came across the giant drawings while working to document the interior of the cave from 2017.
“We knew the cave contained precontact Native American mud glyphs, and we were conducting a 3D photogrammetry documentation project to help with management and conservation,” said Simek, lead author of the study. “Very large rock art images cannot be viewed in person in the cave due to the tight spaces at the site.”
The process of photogrammetry involves taking thousands of photos to create a 3D model of something. It produced an accurate record of the site, but had the added bonus of unveiling the secret artwork, especially given the cave’s very low ceilings. During two months of fieldwork, the team took 16,000 photographs.
During 3D imaging sessions, the team captured a wide view of the ceiling beyond where sunlight hits the cave and found five previously unknown designs.
The use of photogrammetry at this cave and other sites could change the way scientists discover and understand Native American rock art, including the intentions and meanings behind the designs.
The researchers were able to virtually manipulate the cave ceiling using their model to study the glyphs in detail and create digital designs based on the hatch patterns. Four of the artworks show human-like figures wearing elaborate outfits.
A “remarkable human figure” has a long body with outstretched arms and rounded shoulders. According to the researchers, he sports a complicated design on his torso made up of different styles of lines, which likely suggests some type of clothing or insignia. Lines trail behind the figure, suggesting a belt, and another line appears to show the figure symbolically emerging from the rock.
This enigmatic figure is largely made up of swirling lines, with a round head at one end and a possible rattlesnake tail at the other. Credit: S. Alvarez, J. Simek/Antiquity Publications Ltd
Another figure has a square head with lines extending from the top, a rectangular torso, and a single leg. Several of the figurative depictions show some type of pattern or belt on the torso. One has a triangular head with ovals protruding from either side, which looks like “an animal head with erect ears”, but hands which look “clearly human”.
A distinct figure is made of multiple lines of twist and bend and has a tail that resembles that of a rattlesnake, but researchers “don’t know what it represents.”
The fifth and largest figure appears to be a diamondback rattlesnake with clear patterns similar to the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. From head to tail, it measures 11 feet (3.4 meters).
The diamond is the largest rattlesnake found across the Americas, and it was sacred to indigenous peoples living in the southeastern United States.
The inspiration for the characters depicted remains a mystery.
“As we have never seen their like before, we do not know the identity of these ancient rock art anthropomorphs,” the researchers wrote in the study. “They are not recognizable characters from ethnographically recorded Native American stories from the Southeast, nor from archaeologically known iconographic material.”
But the figures share spiritual themes – such as figures with supernatural features – with other known rock art in the region, so they may show figures from “previously unknown religious accounts, probably from the Middle Woods period” between 200 BC and 600 AD. .
This serpent-like figure has a round head and diamond-shaped body markings that suggest it is a diamond-backed rattlesnake. Credit: S. Alvarez, J. Simek/Antiquity Publications Ltd
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is how the work was created. Although the entrance is 10 meters high and 15 meters wide, the chamber containing the art has a low ceiling just 0.6 meters above the floor of the cave. This means whoever created the art had to crouch or crawl through the chamber – and the designs can only be seen while lying on the floor of the cave.
“They are so large that the creators must have created the images without being able to see them in their entirety,” the researchers wrote. “So the creators worked from their imagination, rather than from an unfettered visual point of view.”
The artwork was created during a time when native tribes were moving away from foraging towards farming and building long-term settlements.
These tribes used their environment to honor their religious and spiritual beliefs, building mounds as pathways for spirits to reach the upper world and using caves as sacred spaces that served as pathways to the underworld.
“We know that Native Americans altered their landscapes on a very large scale in order to connect the living to the natural and supernatural worlds and to the varied elements of those worlds,” the researchers note in the study. “The large figures drawn in the 19th unnamed cave therefore likely represent spirits from the underworld, their power and importance expressed in their shape, size and context. They were elements of the larger sacred spiritual landscape of pre-contact Native Americans. .”
Smaller mud glyphs show a) a coiled snake figure, b) a wasp, c) a stylized bird, and d) an anthropomorphic figure surrounded by swirling lines. Credit: A. Cressler/Antiquity Publications Ltd
Although this creation is similar to large outdoor cave paintings found in Utah and other places in North America, it is unusual to find such large drawings hidden in a cave, which is why their presence was completely “unsuspected”.
The first North American rock art was discovered in Tennessee in 1979 and was between 750 and 800 years old. Since this initial discovery, 89 other sites have been discovered in southeastern North America. The oldest site dates back 7,000 years, but much of the rock art was created between 800 and 1600 AD.
Although the 19th unnamed cave has been well-studied, researchers believe they may be just getting started, as these cave drawings had already been missed. But the cave includes more than 5 kilometers of underground passages.
“(The) 19th unnamed cave is the richest of all known rock art sites in southeastern North America,” the researchers said.
“These images are different from most 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.