A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Earliest Cherokee Script?
Volume 63 Number 1, January/February 2010
Last April as we were discussing what discovery should be the focus our lead news item for the July/August isue, our online editorial director Mark Rose happened to get an email from Kenneth Tankersley, a University of Cincinnati archaeologist and a longtime member of our editorial board. Tankersley was checking in to let us know what projects he was working on that might be of interest to us. In a list of very compelling topics dealing with the archaeology of the Midwest, one project leapt off the screen to us. In a modest two-sentence paragraph, Tankersley gave us the news that he had discovered what might be the earliest example of the Cherokee script, developed by the famous Sequoyah.
According to Tankersley, 15 examples of symbols (Ꮢ, Ꮕ, Ꮇ, Ꮧ, Ꮐ, Ꮰ, Ꮋ, Ꮴ, Ꭵ, Ꮊ, Ꮶ, Ꮍ, Ꮗ, Ꮀ, Ꮻ) from the Cherokee syllabary, which was generally thought to have been finalized by Sequoyah around 1819, were engraved next to traditional pictographs in a cave in southeastern Kentucky. A date inscribed next to the symbols could be read as 1808 or 1818. It was Tankersley's opinion that the marks were probably carved by non-other than Sequoyah himself, though it would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove this hypothesis.
Tankersley also made the case that half of the symbols in the syllabary could be plausibly traced to designs that appear in prehistoric and early historic Native American rock art. The story had an irresistible combination of big picture theorizing and a possible link to one of the most important figures in American history and we didn't hesitate to run the discovery in our news section as the lead item (see "Ꮞ Ꮙ Ꮿ Was Here"). The story was subsequently picked up by the New York Times, and media outlets around the world.
Tankersley, member of the Cherokee Nation and Piqua Shawnee tribes, has since gone even further in his investigation between the links between petroglyphs and the Cherokee syllabary. He and colleague Andras B. Nagy now argue that it's possible Cherokee petroglyphs found in caves constitute a "stable system of graphic communication," which communicate narratives through "symbols and signs that range from figurative to abstract forms with meanings and concepts. As such, a Cherokee system of writing likely developed in the Ohio River valley prior to European contact."
It's a bold assertion, one that we hope to investigate in future issues. For now, though, Tankersley's discovery has to rate as one of the most significant of 2009.
If you do not see the Cherokee characters above, they are shown below: