Nation’s Oldest Cave Art Identified In Tennessee

Charcoal drawings, like this one, are found only deep in the 'dark zone' of caves. Likewise, red pigments, made from iron oxide, were generally reserved for use on stone outside the caves. Subject matter also depends on place, indicating that the exterior and interior art served different purposes in the religious and ceremonial life of the people who made it. Credit Alan Cressler/Antiquity

Charcoal drawings, like this one, are found only deep in the ‘dark zone’ of caves. Likewise, red pigments, made from iron oxide, were generally reserved for use on stone outside the caves. Subject matter also depends on place, indicating that the exterior and interior art served different purposes in the religious and ceremonial life of the people who made it. Credit Alan Cressler/Antiquity

Anthropologists now say some prehistoric cave art in Tennessee was made roughly six thousand years ago. That makes it the oldest yet found in America.

The findings are published in this month’s issue of the journal Antiquity. A team, lead by University of Tennessee professor Jan Simek, says prehistoric Tennesseans made ceremonial drawings as early as the Middle Archaic Period, which began in 3788 BC. That’s in addition to already recognized periods where cave art flourished here:

  • Woodland Period (1000 BC – AD 900)
  • Prehistoric Mississippian (AD 900-1600)

Art has been found both inside caves and on stone bluffs throughout the Cumberland Plateau and Tennessee River Valley. Some of it is etched into rock or mud that was spread on cave walls, while others were drawn on with pigments made from charcoal or iron oxide. There are images of birds with wings spread wide, wild turkeys and dogs, abstract shapes believed to have religious significance, and even clear depictions of ceremonial tools found in burial mounds.

Discovery News has a slideshow of images published in Antiquity. Two years ago, Slate highlighted the area’s rich collection of cave art and its reception among the international archaeological community. American Archaeology visited “Unnamed Cave #60″ with Simek. The caves are given rather generic numbered designations in order to protect their locations.

The team credited with authoring the paper are Simek, two former UT doctoral students who now teach at Mississippi State and Sewanee, and photographer/spelunker Alan Cressler, who is the subject of this short documentary. Note: the film includes brief moments of nudity.


Please keep your community civil. Comments will be moderated prior to posting, and Nashville Public Radio reserves the right to approve them at its discretion. Comments containing links promoting goods, services - even noble organizations - will not be published. Your comments may include external links, but all comments with links will be delayed as they are reviewed. Comments containing profanity will be rejected.