Prehistoric Native American Art

Art in its broadest definition is patterned application of human skill that evokes a feeling of aesthetic sensibility. As such, art is a universal of human culture and can be traced archaeologically to at least forty thousand years ago. Art functions on two levels. First, it can be decorative or purely ornamental in function, as are many of the so-called decorative arts. Second, art can be symbolic or actually embody aspects of the value and belief systems of the cultures in which it occurs. In general, symbolic art is created using formalized styles of some time depth and is designed to elicit in the viewer clearly defined expectations and behaviors. For example, a Cherokee wooden mask manufactured in the image of a wolf would be more than a mask to a member of the tribe; it was a clan symbol, which also elicited a set of socioreligious feelings and responses. This symbolic aspect of artistic expression is not restricted to tribal societies. Today, Christian motifs, coats of arms, commemorative scenes, and political logos, for example, are produced to elicit social, political, and religious feelings.

To be fully appreciated and understood, art must be studied in the context of the culture and even the individual that produced and used it. It is hard to overcome our own ethnocentrism in interpreting non-Western or tribal art; it is even more difficult when that art is associated with prehistoric cultures hundreds or even thousands of years old.

Our knowledge of the art of the prehistoric Indians of Tennessee is based upon archaeological research, analogies drawn from historical documents and nineteenth-century ethnographies of the Creeks and Cherokees, and the artifacts themselves. Our record of past art mediums is incomplete; Tennessee’s temperate environment generally precluded the preservation of wood, fiber, feathers, and skins, and in some areas, bone and shell as well. Time also took its toll on the cultural assemblages of groups living five to ten thousand years ago.

Little has been preserved from the Paleoindian (10,000+-8000 B.C.) and much of the Archaic (8000-1000 B.C.) Periods that one could define as art. However, the execution of many of the chipped stone projectile points over the millennia exceeded the utilitarian and evoked aesthetic sensibilities. Likewise, the manufacture of spearthrower weights (atlatl weights, bannerstones) often ultilizing nonlocal stone became an art form in the Archaic Period. By the Late Archaic, artistic decoration was executed in elaborate geometric carving on bone pins. The emergence of regional trade networks by 5000 B.C. and the appearance of marine shell ornaments and copper with some burials in Tennessee suggests the development of social distinctions–status–enhanced by valued objects, an ideal environment for symbolic aspects of art.

By the Woodland Period (1000 B.C.-A.D. 900), the artistic embellishment of objects had increased greatly and included stone pendants and pipes delicately carved in the forms of animals and insects and clay pots whose surfaces were impressed before firing with elaborate geometric designs. North of Tennessee, the Adena and Hopewell cultures, complex societies with earthworks and ritualism, developed formalized art styles that spread throughout the Southeast. Recent excavations at the Pinson Mounds site near Jackson found two rattles made from portions of two human skulls and engraved with typical Hopewellian abstract motifs. The occurrence of much of the art in burials of apparent high status individuals at Pinson and elsewhere suggests an association of art with social differentiation and political power.

In the Woodland Period, stylistically consistent images emerged that were probably associated with specific mythic creatures and contributed to an iconographic system that reached its peak of complexity and formalization in the succeeding Mississippian Period (A.D. 900-1600). The fundamental view of the cosmos for the Indians of the Southeast was a three-tiered universe. This world was a circular island that existed between the Upperworld and the Underworld; life was a constant struggle to maintain balance between order and harmony of the Upper World and disorder and disharmony of the Underworld. Mythic beings who had analogs in different animals personified these worlds; art became a way in which the Indians could symbolically depict and manipulate this construct.

The Mississippian Period in the Southeast was the pinnacle of prehistoric social and political complexity; it was also the peak of artistic expression. Utilizing the mediums of marine shell, pottery, bone, copper, stone, wood, and fabric, the Mississippian Indians of Tennessee created a spectacular array of artistic objects. Additionally, there is evidence that images were applied to dwelling walls with colored clays, and contemporary research is indicating that art was applied to mud and stone surfaces in the deep recesses of caves–a phenomenon that may extend back to the Late Archaic Period. Mississippian art is a fascinating assemblage of symbols and a virtual bestiary of creatures that have been modeled, carved, incised, engraved, or painted.

Fundamental to all this art is a formalized iconography that is based on the construct of the cosmos, veneration of ancestors, warfare, fertility, and the perpetuation of an elite class. The recognition of the frequent use of a number of motifs in Mississippian art gave rise in 1940 to the putative existence of a Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (Southern Cult, Buzzard Cult, Death Cult). Most scholars today reject the idea of a unified cult and instead see the symbols comprising this distinctive iconography within the context of a complex system that was social, political, and economic as well as religious. Scholars also have rejected the notion that the inspiration for Mississippian art derives from Mesoamerica; the similarities are more likely because of fundamental ideologies of great time depth shared in common by North American Indians.

Mississippian art continued into the 1600s but disappeared with the cataclysmic impact of European intrusion and the diseases that brought decimation and social change. In the 1700s the rapid acculturation of the Cherokees and Chickasaws all but eclipsed any traditional art with the exception of basketry.

Suggested Reading

David S. Brose et al., Ancient Art of the American Woodland Indians (1985); Jefferson Chapman, Tellico Archaeology: 12,000 Years of Native American History (1995); Stephen D. Cox et al., Art and Artisans of Prehistoric Middle Tennessee (1985)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Prehistoric Native American Art
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 15, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018