Researchers have translated the famous Cherokee inscriptions from Manitou Cave — but it’s not the story they were expecting to see.

Cherokee inscriptions found in Manitou Cave, Alabama. Credit: University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

The Cherokee were forcefully displaced from their native lands and sent westward on the Trail of Tears in the 1830s — a process which killed at least 4,000 Cherokees and essentially destroyed the native culture. But before that happened, their nation inhabited a broad territory in the southeastern United States. Manitou Cave, named thusly after the fundamental life force in many Native American mythologies, is also included in this territory.

The cave is famous for the historic Cherokee wall inscriptions, made during a time of great distress for the population.

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“These are the first Cherokee inscriptions ever found in a context, and the first from a cave to be translated,” said Jan Simek, president emeritus of the University of Tennessee System and Distinguished Professor of Science in UT’s Department of Anthropology. Simek is a co-author of the study “Talking Stones: Cherokee Syllabary in Manitou Cave, Alabama,” published recently in Antiquity. “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.”

However, while the cave was sacred to the Cherokee, the inscriptions are very profane — they describe a ball game. The first inscription describes an event which took place in 1828, translated as “The leaders of the stickball team on the 30th day in their month April 1828.” A nearby inscription reads “We who are those that have blood come out of their nose and mouth.” It was a pretty violent game.

Stickball resembles the modern European game of lacrosse. It involves ball sticks which are made by hand from hickory and a small ball made of deer hair and hide. The males played with sticks, while women played with their bare hands. But to the Cherokee, it wasn’t just any game — it took the shape of a ritual ceremony, researchers say.

“It is far more than a simple game,” Simek said. “It is a ceremonial event that often continues over days, focusing on competition between two communities who epitomize the spirit and power of the people and their ancestors.”

There’s also something weird about how the inscriptions are made: they point inside out as if to talk to the rock itself.

“The ceiling inscriptions are written backwards, as if addressing readers inside the rock itself,” Simek said. “This corresponds with part of one inscription which reads ‘I am your grandson.’ This is how the Cherokee might formally address the Old Ones, which can include deceased Cherokee ancestors as well as comprise other supernatural beings who inhabited the world before the Cherokee came into existence.”

Researchers are now working to translate several other inscriptions found at Cherokee caves in Alabama.

The study has been published in Antiquity.