America's ancient cave art: Mysterious drawings, thousands of years old, offer a glimpse of lost Native American cultures and traditions.

America's ancient cave art: Mysterious drawings, thousands of years old, offer a glimpse of lost Native American cultures and…

America's ancient cave art: Mysterious drawings, thousands of years old, offer a glimpse of lost Native American cultures and…

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March 21 2011 6:57 AM

America's Ancient Cave Art

Deep in the Cumberland Plateau, mysterious drawings, thousands of years old, offer a glimpse of lost Native American cultures and traditions.

The following essay is excerpted from the latest issue of the Paris Review. This excerpt is available online only in Slate. To read the complete version, click here to purchase the Paris Review in print. Until July 15, Slate readers can enjoy $10 off a  Paris Review subscription by using the code "SLATE" at checkout.

Click here to see photographs of the caves discussed in this essay.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

. Over the past few decades, in Tennessee, archaeologists have unearthed an elaborate cave­-art tradition thousands of years old. The pictures are found in dark­ zone sites—places where the Native American people who made the artwork did so at personal risk, crawling meters or, in some cases, miles underground with cane torches—as opposed to sites in the "twilight zone," speleologists' jargon for the stretch, just beyond the entry chamber, which is exposed to diffuse sunlight. A pair of local hobby cavers, friends who worked for the U.S. Forest Service, found the first of these sites in 1979. They'd been exploring an old root cellar and wriggled up into a higher passage. The walls were covered in a thin layer of clay sediment left there during long­ ago floods and maintained by the cave's unchanging temperature and humidity. The stuff was still soft. It looked at first as though someone had finger­-painted all over, maybe a child—the men debated even saying anything. But the older of them was a student of local history. He knew some of those images from looking at drawings of pots and shell ornaments that emerged from the fields around there: bird men, a dancing warrior figure, a snake with horns. Here were naturalistic animals, too: an owl and turtle. Some of the pictures seemed to have been first made and then ritually mutilated in some way, stabbed or beaten with a stick.

That was the discovery of Mud Glyph Cave, which was reported all over the world and spawned a book and a National Geographic article. No one knew quite what to make of it at the time. The cave's "closest parallel," reported the Christian Science Monitor, "may be caves in the south of France which contain Ice Age art." A team of scholars converged on the site.


The glyphs, they determined—by carbon­dating charcoal from half-­burned slivers of cane—were roughly eight hundred years old and belonged to the Mississippian people, ancestors to many of today's Southeastern and Midwestern tribes. The imagery was classic Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC), meaning it belonged to the vast but still dimly understood religious outbreak that swept the Eastern part of North America around 1200 A.D. We know something about the art from that period, having seen all the objects taken from graves by looters and archaeologists over the years: effigy bowls and pipes and spooky­-eyed, kneeling stone idols; carved gorgets worn by the elite. But these underground paintings were something new, an unknown mode of Mississippian cultural activity. The cave's perpetually damp walls had preserved, in the words of an iconographer who visited the site, an "artistic tradition which has left us few other traces."

That was written twenty-­five years ago, and today there are more than seventy known dark­zone cave sites east of the Mississippi, with new ones turning up every year. A handful of the sites contain only some markings or cross­hatching (lusus Indorum was the antiquarian's term: the Indians' whimsy), but others are quite elaborate, much more so than Mud Glyph. Several are older, too. One of them, the oldest so far, was created around 4000 B.C. The sites range from Missouri to Virginia, and from Wisconsin to Florida, but the bulk lie in Middle Tennessee. Of those, the greater number are on the Cumberland Plateau, which runs at a southwest slant down the eastern part of the state, like a great wall dividing the Appalachians from the interior.

The Plateau is positively worm­-eaten with caves. Pit caves, dome caves, big wide tourist caves, and caves that are just little cracks running back into the stone for a hundred feet—not even a decade ago, explorers announced the discovery of Rumbling Falls Cave, a fifteen­-mile (so far) system that includes a two­-hundred­-foot vertical drop and leads to a chamber they call the Rumble Room, in which you could build a small housing project. All of that is inside the Plateau and in the limestone that skirts its edges.

We were flying along the top of it in a white truck. The archaeologist Jan Simek, whom I'd just met in a parking lot, was driving (Jan as in Jan van Eyck, not Jan as in Brady). He's a professor at the University of Tennessee who, for the past fifteen years, has led the work on the Unnamed Caves, as they're called to protect their locations. We were headed to Eleventh Unnamed. It was a clear day in late winter, so late it had started to look and feel like earliest spring.


Simek (pronounced SHIM­-ick) is a thick­-chested guy in his fifties—bushy dark hair mixed with iron gray, sportsman's shades. I'd expected a European from the name, but he grew up in California. His Czech­-born father was a Hollywood character actor, Vasek Simek: He played Soviet premiers, Russian chess players, ambiguously "foreign" scientists. Jan looks like him. His manner is one of friendly sarcasm. He makes fun of my sleek black notebook and offers to get me a waterproof one like his, the kind geologists use.

Simek was unaware of the caves when he came to UT in 1984. Only a few sites had been uncovered at the time. His best-­known work, the research that built his career, was all in France—not in the celebrated art caves, but at Neanderthal habitation sites.

Simek had heard talk of Mud Glyph, however—the book on the cave, edited by his colleague Charles Faulkner, was coming out just as he arrived. When the task fell to him, as a new hire, of recruiting grad students for the TVA to use in its natural­-resource surveys, he made a point of reminding them, before they went out, to check the walls of any caves they found. After years of doing this to no effect, some students burst into his office one evening, talking excitedly about a cave they'd seen, overlooking the Tennessee River, with a spider drawn on one of the walls inside. They competed to sketch it for him, how its body had hung upside down, with the eyes in front. Simek went to the shelf and pulled down a book. He spread it open to a picture of a Mississippian shell gorget with an all but identical spider in the center. "Did it look like this?" he asked.

That was First Unnamed Cave, "still my heart cave," Simek says. When I visited it with him he showed me the spider. Also a strange, humanish figure, with its arms thrown back above its head and long flowing hair. First Unnamed happens to be the youngest of the Unnamed Caves. Its images date from around 1540. The Spanish had been in Florida for a few decades already, slaving. Epidemics were moving across the Southeast in great shattering waves. De Soto and his men came very near that cave in their travels, just at that time. The world of the people who made those glyphs, the Late Mississippian, was already coming apart.

We turned onto a side road, then onto another, more overgrown one, then started hair­pinning down into a valley. Only at the bottom, climbing out and gazing around, did I get a sense of what we'd descended into—it looked as if a giant had taken an ax and planted the blade a mile deep in the ground, then ripped it away. The forested walls went up, up, up on all sides. We started walking across the little narrow patchwork fields, the farm of the people who owned and protected this place. Jan had called them to say we were coming. Overhead was a wedge of blue sky, with storm clouds starting to mass at one end. Thunder filled the coves.

We approached a grotto. A curving, amphitheater­-like hillside went down to a basin. It was Edenic. "No diver has ever been able to get to the bottom of that thing," Jan said, indicating the blue-­black pool of water. Frogs plashed into it at the sound or sight of us. We stepped sideways, following a half-­foot­-wide path through ferns and violet flocks, little white tube­shaped flowers whose name I didn't know. Following a ledge around the pool, we reached the entrance.

Jan struggled with the lock on the gate. It looked like a mean piece of metal. I wondered if they weren't overdoing it—that was before I'd heard all the stories of what some Tennesseans will do to get into caves they've been told not to enter, using dynamite, blowtorches, hitching their trucks to cave gates and attempting to pull them out of hillsides whole. Jan sent me back to the truck for motor oil, to lubricate the lock. I went gladly, jogging no faster than I had to back through that sanctuary, my pristine white caving helmet bouncing on my hip.


The gate open, we switched on our headlamps. The same silty runoff made it harder now to get into the cave. We squeezed through on our bellies. The mud had a melted Hershey's quality. It oozed through the zipper in my dollar­-store coveralls. The squeeze got tight enough that, as I wriggled on my stomach, the ceiling was scraping my back. Jan said they'd been forced to dig a couple of people out.

At last we came through and could stand, or stoop. I turned my head to move the beam up and down the wall: a light­-brown cave. Jan had a bigger, more powerful, battery-­powered light. He flashed it around.

"Stoke marks," he said, nodding at a spot on the wall. His line of sight led to a cluster of black dots, like a swarm of black flies that had been smashed all at once into the stone. You could find them throughout the cave. They marked places, Simek said, where the ancient cavers had "ashed" their river­ cane torches. The longer you went without doing that, the smokier it got.

He stopped and waited for me to catch up. He was facing the wall.