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Prehistoric rock art hides a cosmological puzzle

Last Updated: Thursday, June 20, 2013 - 18:36

Washington: Pieces of rock art that dot the Appalachian Mountains in the US were strategically placed to reveal a cosmological puzzle suggesting a conceptual universe, a new study claims.

Recently, the discoveries of prehistoric rock art have become more common. With these discoveries comes a single giant one - all these drawing and engravings map the prehistoric peoples` cosmological world.

Researchers led by University of Tennessee, Knoxville, anthropology professor Jan Simek proposed that rock art changed the natural landscape to reflect a three-dimensional universe central to the religion of the prehistoric Mississippian period.

"Our findings provide a window into what Native American societies were like beginning more than 6,000 years ago," said Simek.

"They tell us that the prehistoric peoples in the Cumberland Plateau, a section of the Appalachian Mountains, used the rather distinctive upland environment to map their conceptual universe onto the natural world in which they lived," said Simek.

Simek and his team analysed 44 open-air art sites where the art is exposed to light and 50 cave art sites in the Cumberland Plateau using nondestructive, high-tech tools, such as a high-resolution laser scanner.

Through analysis of the depictions, colours, and spatial organisation, they found that the sites mimic the Southeastern native people`s cosmological principles.

"The cosmological divisions of the universe were mapped onto the physical landscape using the relief of the Cumberland Plateau as a topographic canvas," said Simek.

The "upper world" included celestial bodies and weather forces personified in mythic characters that exerted influences on the human situation.

Mostly open-air art sites located in high elevations touched by the Sun and stars feature these images. Many of the images are drawn in the colour red, which was associated with life.

The "middle world" represented the natural world. A mixture of open air and cave art sites hug the middle of the plateau and feature images of people, plants and animals of mostly secular character.

The "lower world" was characterised by darkness and danger, and was associated with death, transformation and renewal. The art sites, predominantly found in caves, feature otherworldly characters, supernatural serpents and dogs that accompanied dead humans on the path of souls.

The inclusion of creatures such as birds and fish that could cross the three layers represents the belief that the boundaries were permeable. Many of these images are depicted in the colour black, which was associated with death.

The study was published in the journal Antiquity.


First Published: Thursday, June 20, 2013 - 18:36
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