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Cherokee Cave Markings In Alabama Cave Document Old Games, Rituals, And Health Conditions

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Historical Cherokee writings inside Manitou Cave in Alabama were written backwards to appease the spirits of the cave. The ancient script also recorded a game of stickball.  ( Carroll, B., Cressler, A., Belt, T., Reed, J., & Simek, J. (2019) | Antiquity Publications Ltd. )

Cherokee inscriptions found at Manitou Cave, Alabama have finally been deciphered by scientists. They were found at the head of an underground stream.

The discovery gave the researchers a glimpse into the way of life of the Cherokees before they were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and sent westward on the Trail of Tears in the 1830s.

Cherokee Syllabary

The inscriptions were written in a syllabary invented by Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith in 1821. It is made up of 85 characters based on every syllable of the Cherokee language. Sequoyah's writing system spread like wildfire after it was invented, and it was finally adopted by the Cherokee nation in 1825.

The syllabary was commonly used to commemorate events and create the first newspaper published by Native Americans in the United States called "The Cherokee Phoenix."

Cherokee Stickball

"These are the first Cherokee inscriptions ever found in a cave context, and the first from a cave to be translated," said Jan Simek, coauthor of the study and president emeritus of the University of Tennessee System and Distinguished Professor of Science in UT's Department of Anthropology.

"They tell us about what the people who wrote on the walls were doing in the cave and provide a direct link to how some Native Americans viewed caves as sacred places."

The study is titled "Talking Stones: Cherokee Syllabary in Manitou Cave, Alabama," and was published in the April issue of the international archaeological journal Antiquity. The research team who helped decipher the script included Euro-American archaeologists, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees,  the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and the scholars from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

According to the historical inscriptions, it paid tribute to a sacred stickball game played on April 30, 1828. It was presided by Sequoyah's son, whose English name is Richard Guess. The script also mentioned extensive game preparations, meditation, and a sacred ritual called "going to water."

There were also a couple of messages that were written backward. According to scientists, this is so the spirits of the cave could understand their prayers, and guide them in their sacred game.

"We who have blood come out of their nose and mouth," another inscription read. Cherokee scholars said that it would have been indicative of the Cherokee custom to reenter the cave during an intermission or end of the game.

The Cherokee people believe that the blood is a powerful liquid and the stickball game is one of their ceremonies to keep the blood "outside the body from disrupting the world," according to Julie Reed, a Cherokee and historian at Pennsylvania State University who worked on the paper.

Researchers hope they can discover more of these Cherokee writings, especially in caves considered sacred by the Cherokee people.

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