A team of scientists has unearthed a giant Native American painting – unseen in a cave in Alabama for over 1,000 years. It is the largest known cave art discovered in North America.
The large artwork was discovered inside Alabama’s 19th unnamed cave, which has been kept anonymous to protect the site from vandalism. Although its location was first discovered in 1998, the tight boundaries of the caves make it impossible to see the vast artwork painted with mud, so it was missed. But at that time hundreds of small pictures were discovered all over the cave.
This tall humanoid figure is seen in a complex costume. Credit: S. Alvarez, J. Simec / Antiquity Publications Limited
Giant glyphs may depict the spirit of the underworld, dating to the first millennium AD. The study said the industry was created before contact or before Native Americans were exposed to outside culture.
Jan F. Simek, a distinguished professor of science at Knoxville, The University of Tennessee, and a team of researchers initially stumbled upon huge drawings while creating cave interior documentation starting in 2017.
“We knew the cave had a pre-connected Native American mud glyph, and we were running a 3D photogrammetry documentation project to help manage and preserve it,” said Simek, lead research author. “Due to the limited space on the site, artifacts of very large caves are not viewed privately in the caves.”
The process of photogrammetry involves taking thousands of photos to create a 3D model of something. This created an accurate record of the site, but there were additional benefits to uncovering the hidden artwork – especially given the very low ceilings in the cave. During the two months of field work, the team took 16,000 photos.
During the 3D imaging session, the team captured a wide view of the roof beyond the reach of sunlight in the cave and found five previously unknown drawings.
Using photogrammetry in these caves and other sites, scientists can change the way they discover and understand the Native American cave industry, including the motives and meaning behind the designs.
Researchers were able to use their models to manipulate cave ceilings by studying glyphs in detail and creating digital drawings based on cross-shattering patterns. The four works of art depict human-like figures in elaborate costumes.
A “significant human figure” has a long body with outstretched arms and round shoulders. It plays a complex design across the torso made up of lines of different styles, which probably suggests a kind of dress or regalia, according to researchers. The lines on the back of the figure suggest a sash, and another line symbolizes the figure emerging from the rock.
This mysterious figure is composed primarily of a rolling line, with a round head at one end and a potential rattlesnake tail at the other. Credit: S. Alvarez, J. Simec / Antiquity Publications Limited
Another figure has a square head with a line extending from the top, a rectangular torso and a leg. Some sculptures show a pattern or sash on the torso. One has a triangular head with an oval protrusion on both sides, which looks like the head of an “eared animal”, but the hands look “definitely human”.
An individual figure is made up of multiple curves and curves and has a tail that looks like 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 previous diamondback rattlesnake. From head to tail, it measures 11 feet (3.4 m).
Diamondback is the largest rattlesnake found in the Americas, and it was sacred to Native Americans living in the southeast.
The inspiration for the illustrated figures remains a mystery.
“Since we have not seen them before, we do not know the identities of these ancient cave art anthropologists,” the researchers wrote in the study. “They are not recognized characters from ethnically documented Southeast Native American stories or from archeologically known iconographic materials.”
The figures, however, share spiritual themes – such as displays supernatural features – with other well-known rock art in the region, so they may feature characters from “previously unknown religious narratives, probably Middle Woodland period” between 200 BC and 600 AD. .
This snake-like statue has a round head and diamond-shaped body markings indicating that it is a diamondback rattlesnake. Credit: S. Alvarez, J. Simec / Antiquity Publications Limited
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 ceiling just 1.9 feet (0.6 m) below the cave floor. This means that anyone who made this art had to crouch or crawl through the chamber – and the drawings can only be seen lying on the floor of the cave.
“These are so large that the creators had to create images without being able to see them completely,” the researchers wrote. “So, the creators have worked from their imagination, not from an uninterrupted visual perspective.”
The artwork was created at a time when indigenous tribes were moving away from animal husbandry to agriculture and long-term settlements.
These tribes used their surroundings to honor their religious and spiritual beliefs, built mounds as a route for spirits to reach the higher worlds, and used caves as sacred places that served as underground passages.
“We know that Native Americans have dramatically altered their landscapes to connect the living with the natural and supernatural world, and with the various elements of that world,” the researchers noted in the study. “The large figures drawn in the 19th unnamed cave probably represent the spirits of the underworld, revealing their power and importance in their shape, size and context. They were elements of the larger sacred spiritual landscape of pre-connected Native Americans.”
The small mud glyphs show a) a coiled snake figure, b) a wap, c) a stylized bird and d) an ethnographic figure surrounded by a rolling line. Credit: A. Chrysler / Antiquity Publications Limited
Although this creation resembles the large open-air rock art found in Utah and elsewhere across North America, it is unusual to find such large drawings hidden in a cave, due to which their presence was completely “uncertain.”
The first North American cave art was found in Tennessee in 1979 and was 750 to 800 years old. Since that initial discovery, 89 other sites have been found throughout Southeast North America. The oldest site is 7,000 years old, but most of the cave art was created between 800 and 1600 AD.
Although the 19th unnamed cave has been well studied, researchers believe they are just beginning, since the cave paintings were previously missed. But the cave has more than 3.1 miles (5 kilometers) of underground passage.
“(The) 19th unnamed cave is the richest of all known cave industry sites in Southeast North America,” the researchers said.
“These images differ from the ancient art seen so far in southeastern America and suggest that our understanding of that art may be based on incomplete information,” Simek said.