We may associate graffiti with modern-day vandalism, but some daubings actually hold a great deal of significance. Take, for instance, the mysterious inscriptions that were discovered deep inside a cave in Alabama. While the individuals who wrote them are long gone, these cryptic messages endure – and now experts have finally begun to unravel their remarkable secrets.
Many ancient civilizations – among them the Romans and those once in Greece and Egypt – have left behind inscriptions. And these markings have often proved illuminating, too. On occasion, some etchings have helped us form better understandings of historic events such as the destruction of Pompeii; others, by contrast, have revealed fascinating details about ancient people and their ways of life.
This brings us to Manitou Cave in Alabama, where in 2006 a photographer happened upon a set of strange markings. Now, after more than a decade of research, experts have finally deciphered the unique lettering. And the symbols scrawled across the walls of this damp, dark cave give us a rich insight into life 200 years ago as well as the people who left the messages there: the Cherokee.
The Cherokee are one of the indigenous groups of the Southeastern United States. And in 1650 it’s believed that there were more than 22,000 Cherokee members 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.
Meanwhile, some of the first records of the Cherokee come from Spanish expeditions dating from the mid-16th century. These explorers reported that the people they encountered used stone tools such as blades and axes; the native Americans also grew crops including maize and beans, fashioned woven baskets and crafted pottery.
And before the 1700s, typical Cherokee communities are thought to have consisted of up to 60 homes. There were also meeting houses – places for gatherings and sacred fires. However, life would change dramatically for the Cherokee in the 18th century. Even though the indigenous people had aligned themselves with British colonialists in the 1750s, many of their towns would be destroyed by the invaders.
Nevertheless, 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 battles. Then, at some point in the 1800s, the Cherokee began to adopt some aspects of European culture by dressing differently and using new construction and farming techniques.
However, peace would not last for the Cherokee, as in 1828 prospectors found gold on the tribe’s land. Then, two years later, Congress passed an act that would allow for the forcible removal of indigenous people from their homes. This was the start of a horrendous mass displacement that would become known as the Trail of Tears.
After being expelled from their land, then, Cherokee communities went in search of new places to live. In fact, some of them walked for thousands of miles. And, tragically, it’s believed that 4,000 people died on this quest as a result of the elements or of lack of food. Those who did survive, however, would come to settle in states such as Oklahoma, Missouri, Georgia and Alabama.
Cherokee people first began to settle in northeast Alabama, for example, in the 1780s, with many having already spread across farms in the region by 1800. At this time, so-called civilization policies encouraged indigenous men to take up farming and women to carry out domestic work such as weaving.
And Fort Payne, AL – then called Willstown – was one of the locations in which many Native Americans had put down roots after they had been displaced during the Trail of Tears. In fact, the U.S. government considered Willstown to be at one point the most important settlement of the Cherokee.
Not far from Fort Payne, moreover, lies Manitou Cave, which seems to have been significant to the Cherokee people of Willstown. More specifically, the grotto – parts of which reach up to 50 feet in height – is nestled in a forest on Lookout Mountain. In addition, Manitou boasts the Great Spirit Mountain formation – a natural structure towering more than 40 feet.
But Manitou Cave is noteworthy for more than just its beauty. You see, it now appears likely that the cave was once also an important meeting place for the local Cherokee people. And the complex inscriptions that have been discovered at Manitou may yet bear this out. In a study published in the journal Antiquity in April 2019, experts finally revealed the meanings of these markings – as well as what they tell us about Cherokee culture.
Interestingly, this ancient lettering is believed to be related to ceremonial activities, meaning it may hold vital clues about the Cherokee way of life. Yet despite the apparent importance of Manitou Cave to the Cherokee, the hollow hasn’t always been available to the indigenous people. .
During the American Civil War, for example, Manitou Cave became a saltpeter mine. And as saltpeter is an essential ingredient in gunpowder, Manitou was therefore used by the Confederate Army as a means of acquiring propellant for its artillery.
Then, in 1888 – just over 20 years after the Civil War ended – Manitou Cave opened as a tourist site. And while the attraction stayed accessible to the public into the early 1900s, it ultimately fell into a state of disrepair. Even when the cave reopened in the 1960s, its resurgence was short-lived – meaning the mountainside cavern lay eerily abandoned a few decades later.
So, until 2014, the fate of Manitou Cave seemed uncertain. In that year, however, Annette Reynolds visited the site for the first time. Having learned of the cavern through a family member, she was seemingly intrigued to hear that it was up for sale and went to check it out. And in April 2019 Reynolds told AL.com that when visiting the cave, she had been affected by its “peacefulness” and “beauty.”
After realizing that there was still a lot of interest in Manitou Cave, then, Reynolds found a bunch of investors. And together, they bought the place from its then-owner in 2015. It was Reynolds’ intention to protect the cave’s biological, cultural and historical value, and she called in an army of volunteers to clean the location up and make it fit for visitors once more.
As we now know, then, Manitou Cave has been open intermittently to the public over the years, with the result being that some visitors have left their marks on its walls in the form of graffiti. However, not all of the scrawling inside the grotto is random doodles or mindless vandalism. Some markings, in fact, are believed to have been left by the Cherokee people in around 1828.
Photographer Alan Cressler and historian Marion O. Smith first identified the historic lettering in 2006. Since this initial discovery, though, Cherokee inscriptions have been found in several spots within Manitou Cave. And while some of these markings are still extremely difficult to decipher, others have begun to give up their secrets.
At first glance, the inscriptions found in Manitou Cave may appear to show similarities to written English. But upon closer inspection, the symbols and characters reveal themselves to be from a Cherokee language – or syllabary – that was only created in the early 19th century. This means that the syllabary was just a few decades old at the time the markings are believed to have been left.
We know, too, that it was Cherokee scholar Sequoyah who invented this written language. Sequoyah – who was sometimes known by the English name George Guess – volunteered for the U.S. Army. And while he was fighting against rebelling Creek Indians, he developed a fascination with the way in which his comrades spoke to one another using the alphabet.
In developing his syllabary, though, Sequoyah intentionally drew elements from the anglophone alphabet. This way, you see, printing presses could be used to create Cherokee publications. But while the syllabary may have been inspired by English, it was actually often used as a way for the indigenous tribe to communicate in secret when they were under attack from invaders.
Then, in 1821, Sequoyah’s work was done, meaning the Cherokee language could be read and written down for the first time. And the syllabary became official four years later, causing literacy rates among the Cherokee people to soar – even trumping those of European-American settlers.
Interestingly, though, before Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary gained widespread recognition, some of his first students had been his children. And so researchers may have realized the importance of the inscriptions inside Manitou Cave when they saw that two of the markings possessed signatures made by Richard Guess – one of Sequoyah’s sons.
However, it’s taken years of research to discover the true significance of the inscriptions inside Manitou Cave. And in April 2019 a team of Native American experts finally shared their findings in anthropology publication Antiquity. That month, Beau Duke Carroll, a co-writer of the article, told The Washington Post, “People had probably been looking at and passing by [the markings] for years, but they just didn’t know what they were looking at.” So, what exactly did the scholars find?
Well, fascinatingly, the researchers determined that the inscriptions “reveal evidence for secluded ceremonial activities at a time of crisis for the Cherokee.” You see, at the very moment that indigenous people made these markings, their important cultural and religious customs were under threat.
At the time, missionaries and federal officials wanted the Cherokee people to abandon their traditional ceremonies and rituals and assimilate. But the inscriptions within the Manitou Cave reveal that some of the tribesmen weren’t giving up on their way of life easily. In fact, it seems that they were honoring their Cherokee traditions in the same manner as they always had.
Commenting on the Cherokee messages inside Manitou Cave, University of Tennessee anthropologist Jan Simek 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, “????? ? ? ? ? 1828 ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? 30 ? ?.” And according to the experts, this translates as, “The leaders of the stickball game on the 30th day in their month April 1828.” Yes, this suggests that the Cherokee were engaging in a traditional sport even under pressure to change their ways.
A typical Native American game that was not dissimilar to lacrosse, stickball used wooden sticks and balls fashioned from animal hair or skin. Apparently, the sport required a lot of physical exertion and could become very violent – perhaps explaining why stickball is known as the “little brother of war.”
And before a game of stickball, participants would often retreat into a cave so that they could ready themselves – both physically and mentally. Inside, they would sometimes meet with a spiritual adviser or healer; they would also apparently purify themselves using smoke and water before dancing and praying.
Elsewhere in Manitou Cave, a separate inscription appears to reveal just how violent stickball was. The writing reads, “? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ,” which is believed to mean, “We who have blood come out of their nose and mouth.” And experts believe that this message appears to refer to the Cherokee custom of returning to the cave during an interval or when the game had ended.
According to Pennsylvania State University Cherokee historian Julie Reed, bloodied stickball players would seek the shelter of a cave because they saw blood as a “powerful liquid.” So, by retreating into a cavern, they could keep the blood that was now “outside the body from disrupting the world,” Reed explained to The Washington Post.
But anthropologists discovered yet another inscription inside Manitou Cave that apparently reads, “I am your grandson.” And according to Carroll, this was probably indicative of Cherokee people sending messages to “spiritual beings that lived here before.” Alternatively, the inscription could have been seen as a way of communicating with Cherokee ancestors.
Furthermore, inscriptions of this kind could signify that caves were considered “spiritually potent” to the Cherokee, as the study in Antiquity claims. However, they aren’t the only marker of the sacred importance of Manitou. You see, there were also some messages scrawled backwards on the cave’s ceiling – apparently left to try to contact spiritual beings.
And according to Reed, the significant of the Manitou Cave inscriptions lies in their directness. “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.’”
What’s more, David Penney – an associate director at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. – has agreed that the Manitou Cave inscriptions are 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.
And not only are the inscriptions almost 200 years old, but they are also rare in their perspective. Penney explained to The Washington Post that the messages are of particular interest because “history is often written by the victors, and this really is an aspect of Cherokee history that really comes from the Cherokees themselves.”
As for Carroll, he revealed that the findings at Manitou Cave allowed him to look deeper into his own Cherokee history. Not only that, but the inscriptions also enabled him to see the Cherokee language in its written form as it had been almost two centuries ago. Carroll told The Washington Post that it had been special “to find [the markings] like [they] had been since 1828.” Summing up the experience, he added, “It was like I had just gotten there right after they left.”