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10 July 2013
Ancient rock art maps cosmological belief

University of Tennessee anthropology professor Jan Simek and his colleagues propose that rock art in the southeast USA reflects a 3-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."
     Simek and his team analysed 44 open air sites and 50 cave art sites. Analysing the depictions, colours, and spatial organisation, they found that the sites mimic the people's cosmological principles.
     The 'upper world' - mostly open-air art sites in high elevations - included celestial bodies and weather forces personified in mythic characters. Many of the images are drawn in red, which was associated with life. The 'middle world' - a mixture of open air and cave art sites in the middle of the plateau - represented the natural world, featuring images of people, plants and animals of mostly secular character.
     The 'lower world' - predominantly found in caves - was characterised by darkness and danger, and associated with death, transformation and renewal. The sites 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 black, associated with death.
     "This layered universe was a stage for a variety of actors that included heroes, monsters and creatures that could cross between the levels," Simek said. Interestingly, weapons are rarely featured in any of the art sites.

Edited from PhysOrg (19 June 2013)

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