Archaeologists in Alabama have discovered the longest known painting created by early Native Americans, according to a new study. Native Americans made this record-breaking 1,000-year-old image – of a 10-foot (3-meter) long rattlesnake – as well as other paintings, with mud on the walls and ceiling of a cave, likely depicting spirits of the world. underground, the researchers said.
The cave has hundreds of cave paintings and is considered the richest site of Native American rock art in the American Southeast, the researchers said. To investigate his historical art, the team turned to photogrammetry, a technique that involves capturing hundreds of digital images to build a virtual 3D model. Using this method, the researchers identified five previously unknown giant rock paintings known as glyphs.
“This methodology allows us to create a virtual model of space that we can manipulate,” study first author Jan Simek, a distinguished professor in the University of Tennessee Department of Anthropology, told Live Science. “In this particular case, the cave ceiling is very close to the floor. So your field of view is limited by your proximity to the ceiling. We never saw these very large images because we couldn’t go back far enough to see them.”
After creating the virtual model, “we were able to look at it from a broader perspective,” he said. “It allows us to see things in a way we can’t see for ourselves.”
Related: The oldest rock art in the world, including the famous hand stencils, erased by climate change
The record-breaking glyph sports a diamond pattern, indicating it may represent a diamond-backed rattlesnake (Rattlesnake atrox), a creature considered sacred by indigenous peoples of the American Southeast, the researchers said. These peoples built large mounds of earth, used for a variety of purposes, including rituals according to Smithsonian Magazine, and to be closer to the spirits of the upper world, while the caves were seen as the opposite: routes to the underworld.
“These are special because up until now we haven’t had any big figures from this area,” Simek said. “And so this changes our perspective on what might be in these caves.” For example, there are similarly sized rock art images made by indigenous peoples in the West United States, though these glyphs aren’t found in caves, he said. “Bring Southeastern rock art into the discussion of other monumental images we see in different parts of North America,” Simek noted.
This cave was first discovered in 1998 and remains unnamed, called the “19th unnamed cave” to protect the findings. The cave contains over 3 miles (5 kilometers) of underground passages with most of the paintings discovered in a large chamber, according to a 1999 study published in the journal Southeast archeology. By continuing to use photogrammetry techniques in the Nineteenth Nameless Cave and others, the team hopes to further improve understanding of Native American art.
The study will be published online Wednesday (May 4) in the journal Antiquity.
Originally published in Live Science.