NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Tennesseans have been fascinated by caves for centuries. And long before that, when Native Americans inhabited the rolling landscape, they too traversed the deep dark rock masses leaving meaningful messages uncovered thousands of years later.
“There are these hidden treasures and gems everywhere,” said Jan Simek, who has a long list of accolades to his name, including Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee.
He’s also the man who led the team that uncovered hundreds of images of prehistoric cave art. “Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky in particular, but Georgia as well, is one of the richest areas for caves anywhere in North America,” Simek said.
Nestled in these undisclosed locations are images both carved and painted on rock walls miles inground. “We’ve been in thousands, in order to find the few hundred,” explained Simek.
One in particular, discovered within the Cumberland Plateau that cuts across Tennessee between Chattanooga and Nashville, was drawn 6,000 years ago — the oldest to date in North America.
“Six thousand years ago, people were hunting and gathering. They were fishing. They were highly mobile,” said Sarah Sherwood, a Professor of Archaeology at the University of the South at Sewanee who is part of Simek’s team.
She explained the reaction to cave art is still the same. “There are lots of oohs that go on among all of us when you first see it. It’s just so exciting.”
Also along the treacherous trails are artifacts of those who traveled before. “We see the cane river torches that people used scattered all over the place, gourds that they used to pick things up with, basketry,” Simek said.
Images of animals, figures, and symbols meant to record tribal events and spiritual transformations.
“Red is the color of life of birth, black is the color of death. And so it sets off the relationship between what we find in caves, which is related to the underworld, and what we find on the bluff tops, which is related to the celestial realm, the upper world,” explained Simek.
All of which were important to indigenous people and their circle of life.
“This experience has sort of heightened your curiosity and your creativity, about the way people were living in the past,” Sherwood said. “It gives them much more of a three-dimensional life, like our own in terms of spirituality and connections to a place, and to family, and to our kin, our ancestors.”
People can experience this wonder up close in Clarksville.
“That is Dunbar Cave, north of Nashville,” Simek said. “Where a very large archaeological site had accumulated in the mouth of that cave. We know it that goes back 10,000 years.”
The site is also home to significant Prehistoric Native American cave art. Another stop on their journey to new discovery as they continue to preserve the past.
“I think we’ll all keep doing it,” Sherwood says with an infectious laugh, “as long as our knees will hold up.”