There are places where the world of the living brushes up against the world of the spirits. For the Cherokee of the southeastern United States, those places are caves, where the heat of day gives way to the coolness of damp earth, and the light of the sun is exchanged for the darkness of deep, timeless spaces.
Now, researchers exploring several caves near the Alabama-Georgia border have discovered, for the first time, inscriptions describing sacred rituals and reaching out to ancestors, all in the Cherokee script invented by prominent Native American polymath Sequoyah before his people were forcibly moved to western reservations in the 1830s.
The Cherokee syllabary, which consists of 85 characters—one for each syllable in the Cherokee language—spread rapidly after its invention around 1821. It was used to communicate among tribes, commemorate events, and create the first newspaper published by Native Americans in the United States.
Now, it appears tribal members were also using this new script to record sacred events in the region’s caves, researchers report today in Antiquity. In 2006, archaeologists found a set of charcoal inscriptions in a chamber at the end of 1.67-kilometer-deep Manitou Cave near Fort Payne, Alabama, at the head of an underground stream.
But it wasn’t until several years later that it was translated with the help of Cherokee scholars: It commemorated a sacred game of stickball—similar to modern-day lacrosse—played on 30 April 1828. The game involved extensive preparations, including prayer, meditation, and a ritual cleansing known as “going to water.” The rituals for this particular game, the researchers say, were likely presided over by Sequoyah’s son, whose English name was Richard Guess. His name and initials appear in an adjoining inscription, and the year can clearly be seen in Arabic numerals in the lower left-hand side of the main inscription (above). A third inscription, written backward on the cave’s ceiling, addresses Cherokee ancestors with the message: “I am your grandson.”
These are just the first of what researchers hope will be many similar discoveries in caves long considered sacred by the Cherokee people. Two more caves with writings have already been found; there are likely many more out there, the researchers say, waiting to be discovered.