We may associate graffiti with modern-day vandalism, but people have been leaving their marks on places for generations. Take for example the prehistoric cave paintings found in western Europe’s Franco-Cantabrian region or those uncovered in the district of Maros in Indonesia. Both of these examples may be more than 40,000 years old.
Many ancient civilisations, including those in Greece and Egypt as well as the Romans, have left behind random inscriptions. As a result, they’ve helped us form better understandings of some historic events, including the destruction of Pompeii. Alternatively, they’ve revealed what some ancient people thought of the politicians of the day.
However, researchers have deciphered some cave markings found in Alabama. And they give us a better understanding of what life was like for Cherokees there almost 200 years ago. The messages the inscriptions represent may be surprising when you consider that the Native American way of life was coming under threat at that time.
The Cherokee are one of the indigenous peoples of the United States. In 1650 it was believed that there were 22,500 Cherokee individuals living across 40,000 square miles of the Appalachian Mountains. Today, this patch would cover northeastern Georgia, western parts of South and North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.
Some of the first records of the Cherokee come from Spanish expeditions dating from the mid-16th century. Explorers reported that the people they encountered used stone implements, among them chisels, knives and axes. They cultivated crops such as maize and beans, wove baskets and made pottery.
Before the 18th century, typical Cherokee towns consisted of up to 60 houses. There was also a meeting house, where people gathered and burned sacred fires. But life was about to change considerably for the Cherokee people. Despite aligning themselves with British colonialists, they would suffer from the invaders’ indiscriminate scorched-earth policies of the 1750s.
Despite this, the Cherokee continued to support the British throughout the American Revolution of 1765 to 1783. During this time, they even fought alongside the colonialists in many attacks. And following the revolution, at some point in the 1800s, the Cherokee began to adopt some aspects of European culture, dressing differently and using new building and farming techniques.
But peace would not last for the Cherokee. In 1828 prospectors discovered gold on the people’s land. Then in 1830 Congress passed an act that would allow for the forcible removal of indigenous people from their homes. It was the start of a mass displacement that would become known as the Trail of Tears.
After being forced from their homes, Cherokee communities went in search of new places to settle. Some of them walked for thousands of miles on the quest. And tragically, it’s believed that 4,000 people died while seeking a new place to live as a result of exposure, hunger and disease. Those who did survive would come to settle in places including Oklahoma, Missouri, Georgia and Alabama.
Cherokee people first began to settle in northeast Alabama in the 1780s. And by 1800 many Cherokees already spread across farmsteads in the region. At that time, so-called civilization policies encouraged indigenous men to take up farming and women to carry out domestic work such as weaving.
During the 1780s, Native Americans began arriving in Fort Payne, AL, though its name was then Willstown. Many of the newcomers had been allies of the British during the American Revolution and had subsequently been forced from their homes during the Trail of Tears. And at one point, the government considered Willstown to be the most important settlement in the Cherokee nation.
Not far from Fort Payne lies the Manitou Cave. And it now looks likely that the hollow was important to the local Cherokee people of Willstown. The grotto is nestled in a hillside forest and parts of the cavern reach up to 50 feet in height. Manitou also boasts the Great Spirit Mountain formation, which stands more than 40 feet tall.
But aside from its beauty, it now seems likely that the Manitou Cave was an important meeting place for the local Cherokee people. That’s because, according to a study published in the Antiquity journal in April 2019, the Cherokees often considered other cavernous sites just like it to be spiritually powerful.
Researchers came to that conclusion after they discovered inscriptions in a number of caves that they believed were “appropriate in the context of ceremonial action.” However, despite the apparent importance of Manitou Cave to the Cherokee people, they would also lose the site. That’s because, after their removal from the vicinity of the cavern, it became a saltpeter mine.
The mine operated during the American Civil War, which occurred during the years of 1861 and 1865 between the North and South states. Saltpeter was an essential ingredient in gunpowder. Consequently, the mine at Manitou Cave was used by the Confederate Army to provide propellant for its artillery.
Just over 20 years after the Civil War ended, in 1888 Manitou Cave opened as a tourist attraction. It remained accessible to the public into the early 1900s, but it fell into a state of disrepair some decades later. The cave reopened to the public in the 1960s. However, its resurgence was short-lived, and a few decades later the cavern lay abandoned.
The fate of Manitou Cave seemed uncertain until 2014 when Annette Reynolds visited the site for the first time. She had learned of the cavern through a relative and was seemingly intrigued to hear that it was up for sale. So she went to check the cave out, and in April 2019 Reynolds told AL.com she had been “moved by… the peacefulness [and] the beauty of it.”
After realizing that there was still a lot of interest in Manitou Cave, Reynolds found a bunch of investors. They helped her to buy the cavern from its then owner in 2015. It was her intention to protect the cave’s biological, cultural and historical value. So she called in an army of volunteers to clean the cave up and make it fit for visitors once more.
Over the years the cave had been open to the public, and some people had left their mark on Manitou in the form of graffiti. But not all of the inscriptions on the walls of the cavern could be considered mindless vandalism. In fact, some markings were thought to be almost 200 years old, having believed to have been left by Cherokees around 1828.
Photographer Alan Cressler and historian Marion O. Smith first discovered the historic markings in 2006. Following those initial findings, Cherokee inscriptions were subsequently found in various spots within Manitou Cave. However, some inscriptions were mere syllables and therefore couldn’t be translated into phrases.
At first glance, the inscriptions found in Manitou Cave looked very similar to the written English language. However, they were in fact a Cherokee syllabary that had only been developed in the early 19th century. That means that the language was just a few decades old at the time the markings were believed to have been left.
Cherokee scholar Sequoyah invented the written language. Sequoyah – who was sometimes known as George Guess in English – had volunteered for the U.S. Army. And while he was fighting against rebelling Creek Indians, he developed an interest in the way that his comrades communicated using the alphabet.
Sequoyah intentionally used letters similar to those used in the English language to create the syllabary. That way, a printing press could be used to create Cherokee publications. But while the syllabary may have been inspired by English, it was often used as a way for Cherokee people to communicate in secret when they were under invasion from invading whites.
In 1821 Sequoyah completed his work on the syllabary. That meant that the Cherokee language could be read and written for the first time. It was officially adopted by the Cherokee Nation in 1825, leading literacy rates among the people to soar, even surpassing those of European-American settlers.
But before Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary gained widespread recognition, some of his first students had been his children. With that in mind, scientists must have deemed it a significant discovery when they realized that two of the inscriptions inside Manitou Cave had a signature affixed from Richard Guess, a son of Sequoyah.
A team of Native American experts studied the markings in question for years before sharing their findings with anthropology publication Antiquity. Commenting on the markings in the journal, the article’s co-writer Beau Duke Carroll said, “People had probably been looking at and passing by this for years, but they just didn’t know what they were looking at.”
The study concluded that the markings detailed the “secluded, ceremonial” activities of the Cherokee people who once lived close to Manitou Cave. The actions described were typical of Cherokee life at that time. However, at the very moment that people made the inscriptions, it was a way of living that had come very much under threat.
At the time, missionaries and federal officials pressured the Cherokee people to end traditional ceremonies and rituals and assimilate. However, the inscriptions found within the Manitou Cave revealed that they weren’t giving up on their way of life easily. In fact, it seems that they were honoring Cherokee traditions the same as they always had.
Commenting on the Cherokee messages found inside Manitou Cave, in April 2019 anthropologist Jan Simek from University of Tennessee in Knoxville told The Washington Post, “For archaeologists, that’s a remarkable outcome because you’re usually interpreting symbols or words. But here they are telling us, ‘We were practicing in our old ways – look.’”
One of the Manitou Cave inscriptions reads, “ᎠᏂᏴᎵᏘ Ꮖ Ꮑ Ꭱ Ꮶ 1828 Ꭻ Ꮻ Ꮒ Ꭷ Ꮈ Ꭴ Ꭷ Ꮒ 30 Ꭱ Ꭶ.” And according to the experts, this translates as “the leaders of the stickball game on the 30th day in their month April 1828.” With that in mind, it probably refers to a traditional Cherokee game that took place that day.
Stickball was a typical Native American game, not dissimilar to lacrosse, which used hickory sticks and a ball fashioned from deer hair or hide. However, it required a lot more physical exertion and could become very violent. As a result, stickball was often described as the “little brother of war.”
Before a game of stickball, players would often retreat into a cave so that they could prepare themselves – physically and mentally – for the game ahead. Inside the cave they would sometimes meet with a spiritual adviser or medicine man. They would purify themselves using smoke and water, before dancing and praying.
A separate inscription found in Manitou Cave appears to detail the violent stickball game. It reads, “Ꮧ Ꮍ Ꮿ Ꮑ Ꮝ Ꭶ Ꮼ Ꮧ Ꭶ Ꮀ Ꮲ Ꭹ ,” which means, “We who have blood come out of their nose and mouth.” And according to experts, this corresponds with the Cherokee custom to return to the cave in an interval or when the game had ended.
According to Cherokee historian Julie Reed, from Pennsylvania State University, bloodied stickball players would seek the shelter of a cave as they saw blood as a “powerful liquid.” So by retreating into a cavern, they could keep blood that was now “outside the body from disrupting the world,” Reed explained to The Washington Post.
Anthropologists found another inscription inside Manitou Cave which apparently read, “I am your grandson.” And according to Carroll, this was probably indicative of Cherokees sending messages to “spiritual beings that lived here before,” he told The Washington Post. Alternatively, the inscription could have been seen as a way of contacting ancestors.
Inscriptions of this kind could signify that caves were considered “spiritually potent” to the Cherokee, researchers told Antiquity. But it wasn’t the only marker that suggested the sacred importance of Manitou. That’s because there were also some messages written backwards on the cave’s ceiling, apparently left to try to contact spiritual beings.
Explaining why the inscriptions found in Manitou Cave were so important, Reed said it was due to their directness. The markings differ from other texts as they appear quite clear in their meanings and required little interpretation from researchers. “Here we have indigenous people using a written language to tell us what they want to say,” Reed told The Washington Post. “As a Cherokee, I was like, ‘Wow.’”
David Penney is an an associate director at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. And he agreed that the Manitou Cave inscriptions were indeed unique in their significance. “They reflect an aspect of Cherokee life before removal that’s otherwise hidden or obscured from the historical record,” he told The Washington Post.
Not only were the inscriptions almost 200 years old, they were also rare in their perspective. Penney noted that the messages were of particular interest, as “history is often written by the victors. And this really is an aspect of Cherokee history that really comes from the Cherokees themselves,” he said to The Washington Post.
As a Cherokee himself, Carroll revealed the findings at Manitou Cave allowed him to look deeper into his people’s history. They inscriptions also enabled him to see the Cherokee language in its written form somewhere it had existed for almost two centuries. He told The Washington Post that it had been special “to find it like it had been since 1828.” Summing up the experience, Carroll added, “It was like I had just gotten there right after they left.”