Newly translated Cherokee cave writings reveal sacred messages

The inscriptions were found in Manitou Cave in Alabama

a photo of a Cherokee inscription on the wall of a cave

TEAM SPIRIT  A Cherokee inscription inside an Alabama cave likely refers to rituals conducted in 1828 before a spiritually significant athletic contest similar to modern-day lacrosse, researchers say.

A. Cressler, B.D. Carroll et al/Antiquity 2019

Shortly before being forced out of their homeland in the 1830s, Cherokee people of the southeastern United States left written accounts on cave walls of secretive rituals. Now researchers have translated some of those messages from long ago.

Cherokee inscriptions in Alabama’s Manitou Cave, now a popular tourist destination, describe religious ceremonies and beliefs using written symbols for 85 syllables — enough sounds to replicate the Cherokee spoken language. Cherokee scholar Sequoyah devised this writing system not long before his tribe’s banishment down the Trail of Tears, a series of forced relocations of Native Americans to the west.

An historian and a cave photographer first recognized the inscriptions, some of which are written in charcoal, in 2006. A team led by archaeologist Beau Duke Carroll of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Cherokee, N.C., describes what the writing says in the April Antiquity.

One inscription on a wall deep inside the cave, shown above, translates as, “leaders of the stickball team on the 30th day in their month April 1828.” Carroll and his colleagues suspect that the word “their” refers to European Americans.

Cherokee stickball was, and still is, a version of lacrosse played between pairs of communities to achieve spiritual renewal. The inscription commemorates a team’s private ritual preparations before a game, the scientists say. A nearby inscription probably refers to the same team’s pregame rituals. That passage identifies the team’s spiritual leader as Richard Guess, the English name of one of Sequoyah’s children.

Other inscriptions on a ceiling near the cave’s entrance may be religious messages to Cherokee ancestors or other supernatural beings. The script is written backward, likely because it was intended to be read by residents of what the Cherokee considered to be a spirit world reachable only via Manitou Cave, the researchers say.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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