People have wondered about the nature of space for a long time. Some of the oldest art in the United States maps humanity’s place in the cosmos, as aligned with ancient religion.
Numerous engravings and drawings were strategically placed in open air and within caves by prehistoric Native American settlers. This ancient form of art depicts their cosmological understanding of the world.
“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.”
The researchers examined art from 44 open-air locations and 50 caves. The earliest depiction of this kind dates to around 6,000 years ago, but most of the art is more recent, from around the 11th to 17th centuries.
Simek and his team noticed that certain kinds of drawings and engravings only appear in specific areas of the plateau. For example, open-air spots in high elevations illuminated by the sun feature “Upper world” artistic renderings that include depictions of weather forces, heavenly bodies and characters that can influence humans.
The drawings and engravings of the “Lower world” are found in dark areas like caves that are hidden from the sun. Usually, this layer of the world is associated with death, darkness and danger.
The “middle world” represents the reality that surrounded prehistoric humans on a daily basis. These drawings were found in both open-air environments and caves, but for the most part, they were found in the middle elevations of the plateau.
“This layered universe was a stage for a variety of actors that included heroes, monsters and creatures that could cross between the levels,” Simek explained.
Although depictions of many of the personages were found in low, high and middle elevations, color relates the overall cosmological structure of the universe. Characters drawn in red — the color of life — are found in higher elevation sites, while black was used to draw figures found in the lower world.
“The dominant things we see all together are human images, what we call anthropomorphs. They’re not all human; some of them are clearly mythological people or people who blend animal and human characteristics.”
“It’s a very common human conception that there are different levels of being and different levels of cognition and different levels of connectivity with the human condition,” Simek said. “I think all people at one level or another do that.”