A team of scientists has uncovered a series of engravings and drawings strategically placed in open air and within caves by prehistoric groups of Native American settlers that depict their cosmological understanding of the world around them.
“The subject matter of this artwork, what they were drawing pictures of, we knew all along was mythological, cosmological,” Jan Simek, an archaeologist at the University of Tennessee said. “They draw pictures of bird men that are important characters in their origin stories and in their hero legends, and so we knew it was a religious thing and because of that, we knew that it potentially referred to this multitiered universe that was the foundation of their cosmology.”
Simek and his team studied art from 44 open-air locations and 50 cave sites. The earliest depiction of this kind of cosmological stratification dates to around 6,000 years ago, but most of the art is more recent, from around the 11th to 17th centuries.
The researchers noticed that certain kinds of drawings and engravings only appear in specific areas of the plateau. For instance, open-air spots in high elevations touched by the sun feature “upper world” artistic renderings that include depictions of weather forces, heavenly bodies and characters that can exert influence on humans.