COLUMBIA - The story begins, as many do, with curiosity. About 20 years ago, two men exploring "Picture Cave" found paintings on the rock walls and sent hand-drawn reproductions to archaeologists Jim Duncan and Carol Diaz-Granados.
"These things are fake!" Duncan remembered thinking at the time. As it turned out, the nature and location of the drawings contradicted widely held beliefs about Mississippian culture.
The figures on the walls of the cave in east-central Missouri now provide crucial details of the prehistoric timeline of the region. And there's recent evidence that the paintings in Picture Cave predate the Cahokia Mounds as the birthplace of what archaeologists refer to as the Mississippian period.
According to archaeological records, the Mississippian period saw the creation of some of the first large towns and city centers north of Mexico. The conventional belief has been that this period started around 1050 AD, but the drawings in Picture Cave indicate the period began earlier and in a different location.
The husband-and-wife team of Duncan and Diaz-Granados has been investigating the drawings for years, and Duncan will discuss the significance of Picture Cave when the Boonslick Archaeological Society meets at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Walters-Boone County Historical Museum. He will discuss the story of the drawings and the impact they might have on mid-Missouri's anthropological landscape.
The ancient symbols contain mysteries, some of which are inevitably lost forever, but others are pieces to a puzzle that archaeologists have pored over for centuries. The rock paintings at Picture Cave depict cultural beliefs of more than a thousand years ago, and possibly represent the earliest account of the Mississippian Period.
"It is beyond any doubt the most important rock art site in North America," Duncan said.
Although he said the cave is in the central part of eastern Missouri near the Missouri River, he wouldn't give details of its location at this time. The cave is on private property about an hour from Columbia, he said, and its preservation is of utmost importance to the archaeologists. The landowner is also adamant about protecting the site; it was years before Duncan and Diaz-Granados were able to negotiate with the landowner to see the drawings firsthand.
To him, the paintings showed evidence of Native Americans of many tribes converging for religious purposes in what is now Missouri. It seemed to Duncan to have been a place of peace for at least three of the four local tribes.
Duncan believes the significance of the drawings might be on par with the Cahokia Mounds, a United Nations World Heritage Site in Illinois that has been studied for centuries in an effort to understand Native American culture. The Osage Indians of the American Southeast, judging by Duncan's and Diaz-Granados' discovery, might have had a larger role in the Cahokia Mounds than previously believed.
The Web site for the Cahokia Mounds - www.cahokiamounds.com - compares the site to Mecca or the Vatican. The Mounds are thought to have been the capital of the Mississippian culture.
Duncan is convinced the drawings in Picture Cave were made by the same people who constructed the Cahokia site. This would have remarkable implications for the history of both the lower Missouri River Valley and Cahokia. Linking these two areas could reveal much about the period and its people, he said.
A specialist hired by Duncan and Diaz-Granados analyzed tiny amounts of organic matter in the pigments of the paint and dated them to 975 to 1025 AD. One drawing was dated to 800 AD.
"These images, which are very sophisticated and very complex in representing supernatural beings, turned out to be older than the Cahokia Mounds," Duncan said. Most of the prehistoric art found in Missouri was made after the construction of the mounds, and the newly discovered drawings could help foster an understanding of the people who lived before that time.
Bill Iseminger, assistant site manager of Cahokia Mounds, said the artwork at Picture Cave could "push back a little earlier the continuity of prehistory in the region." Iseminger added, however, that it is still to be proven whether these sites are as important as Duncan makes them out to be.
The pictures depict weapons and community hunting tactics. Duncan interprets other paintings as symbols of supernatural heroes such as the winged bird-man, "Morning Star," and the hero twins known as "Children of the Sun."
"That kind of symbolism is prevalent in the Mississippian period," Iseminger said. "To discover an earlier birth of the period would connect the culture heroes of these works to an earlier time than anyone thought."
Duncan is especially intrigued by the cosmic system the paintings represent, particularly their depiction of life after death. His specialty is interpreting such prehistoric symbols.
The paintings, he said, "show human beings becoming part of the cosmic system ... they are realistic portrayals of supernatural beings that look like humans. Their powers are shown in unique body parts and elements of clothing."
Some of these interpretations might have been lost along with their civilizations, even though the Native American descendants of the Osage tribe, including those of its four divisions - the Omaha, the Panca, the Kansa, and the Arkansa - are still around today, dispersed across the American Southeast.
"This should be of great interest to people in Columbia because the environment that we are only getting used to was inhabited by these cultures for thousands of years," Duncan said. "They were much more acclimated to it, and their ideologies show how closely people can be related to an environment such as ours."