DG is addicted to this stuff. The past is lost, mysterious. Especially in America where the remnants of ancient civilizations litter the landscape—all those mounds, pyramids, middens, ceremonial complexes. It’s much easier to imagine the stone temples emerging from the jungles of the Yucatan than to conjure the lost rites of the Native Americans of the great Mississippian cultures. The French encountered the Natchez before their world completely collapsed. We have their observations. But here’s an essay (excerpted in Slate from the Paris Review) on an even stranger mystery, cave art, newly discovered, left by these ancient peoples and their predecessors. DG is especially grateful for the antique phrase lusus Indorum, Indian whimsy.
We entered a large hall. The ceiling was very high, it looked a hundred feet high. It was smooth and pale gray. Simek shone his lamp up and arced it around slowly. “What do you see?” he said.
“Are those mud dauber nests?” I asked. That’s what they looked like to me.
“The ceiling,” he said, “is studded with three hundred globs of clay.”
I stared up with open mouth. I didn’t have a good question for that one.
“We said the same thing,” he said. “What were they doing?” So a researcher had climbed up and removed one of the globs and taken it back to the lab at UT. They sliced it open. Inside was the charred nubbin of a piece of river cane, like a cigarette filter. “We got a piece of cane about that big,” Jan said, indicating his little finger. The Indians had jammed burning stalks of river cane into balls of clay and hurled them at the ceiling.
“They lit up this place like a birthday cake, man!” he said.
“Was it some kind of ceremony or something?”
“Who knows!” he said. “Maybe they were hunting bats.”
“What were they doing here?” I asked, as if asking no one.
“Minimally,” he said, “making art, burying their dead, lighting it up like a Christmas tree. Maybe hunting bats.”