The oldest and most widespread collection of prehistoric cave and rock art in the United States has been found in and around Tennessee, according to a new paper in the journal Antiquity that documents the art. It provides intriguing clues about what life was like for Native American societies more than 6,000 years ago. That is the age of the newly discovered cave art, one of which is seen here, showing what appears to be a human hunting. Other images are of a more direct spiritual/mythological nature.

U.S.'s Oldest Cave and Rock Art Discovered in Tennessee

June 17, 2013

At more than 6,000 years old, prehistoric cave and rock art found in what is today Tennessee is easily the oldest discovered yet within the United States. The art is also the most widespread collection found anywhere in the U.S., according to a new paper in the journal Antiquity that documents the art. The extensive cave and rock art provides intriguing clues about what life was like for Native societies more than 6,000 years ago.

According to the study published in Antiquity, "systematic field exploration in Tennessee has located a wealth of new rock art—some deep in caves, some in the open air. The authors show that these have a different repertoire and use of color, and a different distribution in the landscape—the open sites up high and the caves down low. The landscape has been reorganised on cosmological terms by the pre-Columbian societies. This research offers an exemplary rationale for reading rock art beyond the image and the site."

Lead author Jan Simek, president emeritus and a distinguished professor of science at the University of Tennessee’s Department of Anthropology, told Discovery News, “The discoveries tell us that prehistoric peoples in the Cumberland Plateau used this rather distinctive upland environment for a variety of purposes and that religion was part of that broader sense of place.”

Simek and his colleagues suspect that the open-air rock art and the cave art were connected as part of “an organized alteration of the landscape,” with the creators of the images mapping “their conceptual universe onto the natural world in which they lived.” This happened in three dimensions, with upper (celestial in nature), middle (plants and animals) and lower (darkness, death and danger) worlds matching content with where it was placed in the region, according to FoxNews.com.

Simek describes another image of a bird was incised in wet mud banks deep inside Mud Glyph Cave in Tennessee. Mud, which is associated with the origin of the world by many Southeast Native American peoples, was often used as a medium by prehistoric cave artists. This example is still plastic and therefore extremely fragile.”

According to Simek, “Many of the images, like this black charcoal pictograph of a rayed circle from Dunbar Cave in Tennessee, can also be seen on portable religious objects found in temple mounds and other prehistoric religious contexts.”

Co-author Sarah Sherwood of the University of the South, added, “Rock art sites are only one type of specialized activity site we see in the area; we know that people came to the Plateau to find specific foods, including animals and plants (in fact, certain native plants were domesticated in the area more than 3,000 years ago) and to obtain non-food resources; rock art was an integral part of how people conceived and used their landscapes.”

To see the entire Discovery News photo gallery containing images and descriptions of the discovered cave and rock art, click here.



Mark LaRoux's picture
Mark LaRoux
Submitted by Mark LaRoux on

Ah, the 'very large polychrome pictograph' pictured may be proof that a 'look' existed in ancient times too (just kidding, y'all). You know, when you are on the top of a hill and can see the distance to the top of the next hill...that's a 'look'. Looks like the place in the painting is '7 looks away' to me.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on

I just don't believe your time frame...or that the oldewst habited cavew is only 6000 years old..I just don't believe it..There's one around St.Louis that's supposed to be over 10,000 years old.

Taylor Spence, PhD's picture
Taylor Spence, PhD
Submitted by Taylor Spence, PhD on

Congratulations Sarah! This is amazing!

I might add that these images are equally (if not primarily) important for the people in whose homelands they are found. Have they been invited to see them? Did they participate in this study? Do you have their permission to record these?



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