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31 August 2008
Missouri cave paintings give ancient insight

About 20 years ago, two men exploring 'Picture Cave' (east-central Missouri, USA) found paintings on the rock walls and sent hand-drawn reproductions to archaeologists Jim Duncan and Carol Diaz-Granados. "These things are fake!" Duncan remembered thinking at the time. As it turned out, the nature and location of the drawings contradicted widely held beliefs about Mississippian culture. The figures on the walls of the cave now provide crucial details of the prehistoric timeline of the region. And there's recent evidence that the paintings in Picture Cave predate the Cahokia Mounds as the birthplace of what archaeologists refer to as the Mississippian period.
     According to archaeological records, the Mississippian period saw the creation of some of the first large towns and city centers north of Mexico. The conventional belief has been that this period started around 1050 CE, but the drawings in Picture Cave indicate the period began earlier and in a different location.
     The ancient symbols contain mysteries, some of which are inevitably lost forever, but others are pieces to a puzzle that archaeologists have pored over for centuries. The rock paintings at Picture Cave depict cultural beliefs of more than a thousand years ago, and possibly represent the earliest account of the Mississippian Period. "It is beyond any doubt the most important rock art site in North America," Duncan said. The cave is on private property about an hour from Columbia, he said, and its preservation is of utmost importance to the archaeologists. The landowner is adamant about protecting the site; it was years before Duncan and Diaz-Granados were able to negotiate with the landowner to see the drawings firsthand.
     Duncan believes the significance of the drawings might be on par with the Cahokia Mounds, a United Nations World Heritage Site in Illinois that has been studied for centuries in an effort to understand Native American culture. The Osage Indians of the American Southeast, judging by Duncan's and Diaz-Granados' discovery, might have had a larger role in the Cahokia Mounds than previously believed. Duncan is convinced the drawings in Picture Cave were made by the same people who constructed the Cahokia site. This would have remarkable implications for the history of both the lower Missouri River Valley and Cahokia. Linking these two areas could reveal much about the period and its people, he said.
     A specialist hired by Duncan and Diaz-Granados analyzed tiny amounts of organic matter in the pigments of the paint and dated them to 975 to 1025 CE. One drawing was dated to 800 CE. "These images, which are very sophisticated and very complex in representing supernatural beings, turned out to be older than the Cahokia Mounds," Duncan said. Most of the prehistoric art found in Missouri was made after the construction of the mounds, and the newly discovered drawings could help foster an understanding of the people who lived before that time.
     Bill Iseminger, assistant site manager of Cahokia Mounds, said the artwork at Picture Cave could "push back a little earlier the continuity of prehistory in the region." Iseminger added, however, that it is still to be proven whether these sites are as important as Duncan makes them out to be.
     The pictures depict weapons and community hunting tactics. Duncan interprets other paintings as symbols of supernatural heroes such as the winged bird-man, 'Morning Star,' and the hero twins known as 'Children of the Sun.' "That kind of symbolism is prevalent in the Mississippian period," Iseminger said. "To discover an earlier birth of the period would connect the culture heroes of these works to an earlier time than anyone thought."

Source: Missourian (27 August 2008)

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