Ancient art uncovered in dark, dangerous zones of southeastern US caves. Take a look

Miles below the Earth’s surface are some of the most dangerous caves in the southeastern U.S.

“You are in an alien world,” Jan Simek, archaeologist and anthropology professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, told McClatchy News. “It’s a very different world than we live in. A dangerous world, in fact. Your perceptions are different. Your experiences are different.”

Simek is referring to the dark zones of caves deep underground that are “not influenced by the exterior light.” It’s here that he and his team have found Native American art from hundreds of centuries ago.

They have explored close to a 100 cave sites already — a majority of which are located in Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky, Simek said. They have also visited a few in Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia, and one in Florida.

Even now, new caves are being discovered including four earlier this year, according to Simek.

The Appalachian Plateau, which stretches from New York southwest to Alabama, contains thousands of caves, Simek said. It also includes the world’s longest cave called “Mammoth” in Kentucky.

Flowing Stone Cave (Credit: Alan Cressler)

Flowing Stone Cave (Credit: Alan Cressler)

The caves in the Appalachian region were “very important parts of the landscape for ancestral Native Americans,” Simek told McClatchy News. “They used those caves like they used other parts of their landscape as sacred places.”

Types of ancient Native American art inside caves

Some of the ancient cave art, according to Simek, include:

Mud glyphs: drawings traced into mud surfaces.

Petroglyphs: drawings embedded into limestone of cave walls.

Pictographs: paintings made up of charcoal-based pigments.

Petroglyphs of ceremonial weapons and a birdman figure (Credit: Alan Cressler)

Petroglyphs of ceremonial weapons and a birdman figure (Credit: Alan Cressler)

Mud Glyph of an owl from 1250 AD in Mud Glyph Cave, Tennessee (Credit: Alan Cressler)

Mud Glyph of an owl from 1250 AD in Mud Glyph Cave, Tennessee (Credit: Alan Cressler)

Mud Glyphs in main passage of “first Unnamed Cave” in Tennessee (Credit: Alan Cressler)

Mud Glyphs in main passage of “first Unnamed Cave” in Tennessee (Credit: Alan Cressler)

Petroglyphs of ceremonial weapons and a birdman figure (Credit: Alan Cressler)

Petroglyphs of ceremonial weapons and a birdman figure (Credit: Alan Cressler)

The oldest caves with art inside date back to nearly 6,500 years ago — though the sites are rare and are found between the Kentucky and Tennessee state line, Simek said in a University of Tennessee Knoxville news release earlier this month.

Researchers have found “that cave art has strong connections to the historic tribes that occupied the Southeast at the time of European invasion,” Simek said in the news release.

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For example, mid-19th century inscriptions of the Cherokee syllabary were found on cave walls in Alabama and Tennessee, according to the news release.

The writing system was created by a “Cherokee scholar Sequoyah between 1800 and 1824” and became the “primary means of written expression,” the news release said.

“Cherokee archaeologists, historians, and language experts” often consult with him “to document and translate these cave writings,” Simek said in the news release.

Bryers Cave in Georgia (Credit: Alan Cressler)

Bryers Cave in Georgia (Credit: Alan Cressler)

Remains found from 3,000 years ago in a cave

Native Americans created art in the Southeast “all the way through to the historic period just before the Trail of Tears saw the forced removal of indigenous people east of the Mississippi River in the 1830s,” according to the news release.

Some of them died due to dangerous cave conditions.

For example, Native American remains from 3,000 years ago were found in Mammoth and Salt Cave in Kentucky, Simek told McClatchy News.

“If you went into the dark zone to make artwork you had to carry your light sources and food with you,” Simek said. “It was not a simple undertaking. Lots of things could still go wrong to this day.”

Ever since the first dark zone cave was discovered south of Knoxville in 1980, Simek and his team have set their sights on studying and uncovering more ancient art — exploring caves “any chance they get,” he said.

Four new caves, in fact, were discovered in the “first half of 2021,” Simek said in the university news release.

“In a certain way, by following in their (Native Americans) footsteps into these places, feeling the nature of the experience that they experienced, brings people a little bit closer,” Simek told McClatchy News. “You can kind of feel their spirit.”

Bryers Cave in Georgia (Credit: Alan Cressler)

Bryers Cave in Georgia (Credit: Alan Cressler)

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