Scientists are using 3D technology to discover the largest collection of ancient Native American cave paintings.

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Depiction of an almost 11-foot cave drawing of a snake figure with a round head and diamond-shaped markings on the body, from "19th Nameless Cave" in Alabama.  Revealed etchings with overlay illustrations by Jan Simek.

  • Archaeologists have discovered the largest group of rock art made by Native Americans before the arrival of Spanish explorers.
  • Scientists took thousands of high-tech photographs to scan the ceiling of an Alabama cave and create a 3D model.
  • Examination of the ceiling of the virtual cave revealed thousands of drawings, including several life-sized images.

Researchers used 3D scanning technology to reveal what they say is the largest collection cave art drawings ever found in North America.

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Among the glyphs found on the ceiling of a cave in Alabama is a snake-shaped figure about 11 feet in size, scientists said in a study published Wednesday in a peer-reviewed journal. Antiquity.

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According to co-author Jan Simek, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee, the five examples of Native American cave art documented in the study were the largest found and are estimated to be 1,000 to 1,800 years old. But the process used to create a photorealistic virtual 3D model of the cave actually revealed “thousands of additional glyphs and images,” according to a story documenting the study in Archive of ancient art.

“It was amazing to see them, but no wonder they were there,” Simek told USA TODAY.

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This is because archaeologists have found many examples of open-air rock art created before Spanish explorers arrived in North America. But much of this has been found by archaeologists investigating burial sites.

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Stephen Alvarez, founder of the Archives of Ancient Art, prepares to photograph Native American art on the ceiling of a cave in Alabama.  His reflection is visible in the pool in the cave.

These new revelations come after Simek, a nonprofit archive board member, and study co-author Alan Kressler first published 1999 finds about the cave, identified as “19th unnamed cave” to protect it from marauders. After Kressler subsequently noticed several additional faint clay drawings on the ceiling of the cave, they decided to investigate further.

To accurately capture the topography of the ceiling, the study’s third co-author Stephen Alvarez, who is also the founder of the Archives of Ancient Art, proposed a 3D mapping project. He spent several months taking over 16,000 high-resolution photographs in a 5,000-square-foot camera.

These overlapping photographs were combined into a 3D model using photogrammetry, a software technology that is also used to create virtual maps and environments, as well as virtual objects for video games such as Call of Duty.

Alvarez also built a special processing computer after one computer’s motherboard melted while compiling images.

Scientists used high-resolution 3D photography to discover this about 6-foot tall Native American painting on the ceiling of a cave in Alabama.  On the left is the cave ceiling as it appears to the naked eye.  On the right you see the main drawing superimposed on the image.

Using powerful 3D software, the scientists were able to illuminate the surface of the ceiling with virtual light, revealing previously unseen patterns. According to scientists, many of the engravings were pale or indistinct, as moisture and rain had worn them away.

The 3D model also provided a better vantage point for assessing the cave’s surface because the cave’s “hard physical limits” required you to duck or tend to look at it in person, they said. As a result, you are often too close to the ceiling to see the images. “We can actually move the floor away from the ceiling in the model,” Simek told USA TODAY.

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The original cave artists made these drawings life-size and larger, “not being able to see them in their entirety,” the researchers wrote in Antiquity. “So the creators were working in their imagination rather than in an unobstructed visual perspective.”

What did they actually draw? Because the caves were sacred sites to Native Americans in the southeastern United States and were considered “pathways to the underworld,” the researchers write, the stylized human forms depicted below with rattlesnakes may represent religious spirits.

“We would characterize them as humanoid forms, but it’s hard to tell if they are humans in elaborate regalia or perhaps supernatural characters,” Simek said. “The meaning is difficult so far back in time.”

According to him, the ancient art in the caves was unexpected for many archaeologists. “We were thrilled to see these things appear in the course of this analytic technique,” ​​Simek said.

Scientists presented the results of the annual archaeological conference of the Eastern Group of the Cherokee. “They were fascinated by what we saw,” Simek said.

The Cherokee Nation, along with the Muskogee Creek Nation, the Chickasaw Nation, and the Choctaw Nation, are among the tribes whose descendants lived in the region at the time the drawings were made.

Photogrammetry was subsequently used in several other caves in the southeast. “What strikes me about the use of 3D modeling is that a story that was told over a thousand years ago and was invisible can now be seen in its entirety,” Alvarez said.

“The artists who engraved the cave speak to us,” he said. “We can use 3D modeling to listen.”

Follow Mike Snyder on Twitter: @mikesnider.

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