NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE — Jan Simek, leader of the team that discovered the oldest known cave art in the United States, says he is far from finished.
The 60-year-old science professor at the University of Tennessee still plans to belly crawl through caves or climb atop bluffs in the hope of finding more art in his cave-rich state.
The Simek team's discovery of 6,000-year-old art in the Cumberland Plateau, a division of the Appalachian Mountains extending from southern West Virginia to northern Alabama, is featured in the June issue of Antiquity, the archeological journal published by Britain's Durham University.
“Yes, we have cave art that is 6,000 years old,” Simek said. “But we don't want to say it is the oldest rock art [in the United States].”
Simek said there might be ancient rock art in 400 or 500 of the 9,000 caves recorded in the limestone and sandstone bedrock of Tennessee.
His team has explored about 1,000 of them so far. “We are in the early stages of this, to be honest,” he said.
Cave locations are kept secret because of concerns that looters could damage any archeological treasures that may be inside.
By global standards, 6,000-year-old cave art is still relatively youthful. Experts say the famous Paleolithic paintings in Lascaux, France, are as old as 20,000 years; other drawings found in Australia and southern Africa are believed to be older still.
Nonetheless, archeologists and Native Americans are excited about the discoveries by Simek and his team: Alan Cressler of the U.S. Geological Survey; Nicholas P. Hermann of Mississippi State University and Sarah C. Sherwood of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
Albert Bender, a Cherokee and board adviser for the Nashville-based Native American Indian Association of Tennessee, said the discovery “shows the sophistication of Native American society in the South going back thousands and thousands of years.”
Michael Moore, director and state archeologist in Tennessee's Division of Archeology, described the team's find as “extremely exciting and extremely significant” for “the different insights into prehistoric culture.”
Simek said his team's main focus was on the connection of the art to religion. Some of the drawings show humans hunting or engaging in magical activities like flying; others depict more mythological or spiritual images such as serpents and circles.
“We know ... that these folks had recognized multiple layers of reality, and humans only occupied one of the layers in the middle,” he said. “But they interacted with and were influenced by a celestial world, an upper world that had certain creatures and spirits associated with it and an underworld that had other spirits associated with it.”
Simek said this multi-tiered religious view was represented by the figures on bluffs, those in the open air, and those beneath the ground in the Cumberland Plateau.
He compares the spiritual view of the artists with other religions, including Christianity.
“Christ was taken to the top of the mountain, crucified, taken down, put in a cave and from there was reborn,” he said. “Those are the vertical levels of our spiritual world.”
To him, the artwork and the sheer physical demands required for the painters and carvers to reach so high on the bluffs as well as so far below ground to depict their spiritual hopes and fears are proof that a sophisticated society predated people who currently call Tennessee home.
“This stuff is thoughtful, insightful, profound, sacred,” said Simek, who fortunately is neither claustrophobic nor afraid of the dark. “These people have taught me a great deal about the power of the human mind.”
Then he stopped and added: “It's a lot of fun.”