Rock Art Provides Insight Into Prehistoric Native American Societies
June 20, 2013

Prehistoric Rock Art In The Appalachian Mountains Maps Cosmological Belief

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Perhaps the most widespread and oldest art in the US, prehistoric rock art can be found throughout the Appalachian Mountains. A new study led by University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) anthropology professor Jan Simek reveals that each engraving or drawing is strategically placed to reveal a cosmological puzzle.

As the discoveries of prehistoric rock art have become more commonplace, the evidence is building that all of the drawings and engravings map the prehistoric peoples' cosmological world.

The research team, which included Nick Herrmann of Mississippi State University, Alan Cressler of the US Geological Survey, and Sarah Sherwood of The University of the South, proposed that rock art changed the natural landscape to reflect a 3D universe that was central to the religious beliefs of the prehistoric Mississippian period.

“Our findings provide a window into what Native American societies were like beginning more than 6,000 years ago," said Simek, president emeritus of the UT system. “They tell us that the prehistoric peoples in the Cumberland Plateau, a section of the Appalachian Mountains, used the rather distinctive upland environment to map their conceptual universe onto the natural world in which they lived."

The researchers analyzed forty-four open-air art sites where the art is exposed to light, and fifty cave art sites in the Cumberland Plateau. They used nondestructive, high-tech tools such as a high-resolution laser scanner. By analyzing depictions, colors, and spatial organization, the team found that the sites mimic the Southeastern native people's cosmological principles.

“The cosmological divisions of the universe were mapped onto the physical landscape using the relief of the Cumberland Plateau as a topographic canvas," said Simek.

Celestial bodies and weather forces personified as mythic characters, exerting influences on the human situation, were part of the “upper world." These images - many of which were drawn in the color red, which is associated with life - were mostly featured in open-air sites located in high elevations touched by the sun and stars.

The “middle world" represented the natural world, with images found in a mix of open-air and cave art sites hugging the middle of the Plateau. The images feature people, plants and animals of mostly secular character.

Characterized by darkness and danger, the “lower world" was associated with death, transformation and renewal. These sites are predominantly in caves and feature otherworldly characters, supernatural serpents and dogs that accompanied dead humans on the path of souls. The team suggests that the inclusion of creatures such as birds and fish that could cross all three layers could represent the belief that the boundaries between worlds were permeable. Many of the lower world images were depicted in black, which was associated with death.

“This layered universe was a stage for a variety of actors that included heroes, monsters and creatures that could cross between the levels," Simek said.

The scientists found it interesting that weapons rarely appeared in any of the art sites.

The sheer scale of the rendering is impressive, said Simek, who noted that the Cumberland Plateau was a sacred setting, spanning hundreds of miles, in which individual sites were only parts of a greater conceptual whole.

Results of this study were published in the journal Antiquity.