A panorama of the entire ceiling from 19th Unnamed Cave, with glyphs highlighted in white.Photo: S. Alvarez
The identity of the people who made the glyphs is unknown, but they are in all likelihood the ancestors of some living Americans. The exact characters or mythologies the glyphs may depict is also unknown, but they are thematically similar to glyphs and rock art from elsewhere in North America, according to the researchers.
The newly discovered glyphs are so massive that they weren’t previously noticed as discrete artworks. By scanning the entire cave ceiling, the researchers were able to stitch together images of artworks that cannot be observed in their totality in person, given the cave’s low ceiling. Not all the glyphs have been catalogued, Simek said, so the cave has yet more secrets to divulge.
In the paper, the researchers described the five largest glyphs they found. Several are anthropomorphic, with humanoid bodies apparently wearing regalia. Two of the anthropomorphs were about 6 feet long, and another was 3 feet long. The largest of the glyphs is an 11-foot serpent, with a pattern the team states are similar to that of the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamenteus), which is native to the area.
The decision to carve hundreds of glyphs in a difficult-to-access, pitch-black recess of a cave may seem perplexing. But Simek said that the location would have been selected with intention. “And even if they couldn’t perceive [the art] all at once, and even if it was only certain members of the community that could perceive it, they knew it was there, ”he said.
The drawings are hardly old by cave art standards: The painted scenes at Lasceaux in France are nearly 20,000 years old, and a painting of a pig in an Indonesian cave is a whopping 43,900 years old. But the glyphs in Alabama are a rare look into the culture of native people in what is now the Southeastern United States.