Deep Time: How Earth Keeps Time

TTBOOK and CHN present Deep Time

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Original Air Date: 
August 19, 2023

Are you ready to think in centuries instead of seconds? Eons instead of hours? It’s time to make thousand-year plans and appreciate how Earth keeps time. 


Geologist Marcia Bjornerud has a profound understanding of Earth's deep history. The author of "Timefulness," she says geologic literacy would give us a much healthier sense of time. 

Photo Gallery

Stephen Alvarez — a National Geographic photographer and founder of the Ancient Art Archive — has spent years documenting ancient rock art around the world. He takes Steve Paulson on a long hike in the Cumberland Plateau, where they find an "unnamed cave" with 2,000-year old engravings.


Dustin Mater is a Chickasaw artist who's fascinated by ancient rock art. He says these images resonate with stories he heard from tribal elders, which he uses as inspiration for his own art.  


Show Details 📻
August 19, 2023
April 20, 2024
Full Transcript 📄

- [Anne] It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge." I'm Anne Strainchamps. Marcia Bjornerud has been wrestling with time for much of her life. That's an obsession she can trace all the way back to childhood and a snowy day in Wisconsin. Stuck indoors, she pulled her family's big world atlas off the shelf and opened it to...

- [Marcia] An atlas showing time zones.

- [Anne] She'd never really noticed the zones before. Those pastels stripes running so precisely down the page.

- [Marcia] It depicted the time in Chicago and Beijing and other places.

- [Anne] But there were parts of the map that didn't play by the rules.

- [Marcia] I noticed some areas that were colored gray, and in the legend of the map, cryptically, it said something like, "These areas have no official time." And I just thought that was a wondrous concept. What did it mean? Did it mean that really no clocks were allowed in this place? That time was just running unfettered freely, like it doesn't anywhere else? And one of those places was Svalbard.

- [Anne] Svalbard. It says something about Marcia that her eyes would drift to a tiny archipelago in the Arctic, north of Norway, 650 miles from the pole, that she would even think about maybe one day going there. Today Marcia knows Svalbard well.

- [Marcia] It's an amazingly raw and wild place.

- [Anne] She's a structural geologist, and the island is a living clock for her. One that ignores minutes and hours, and instead measures the eons of deep time.

- [Marcia] So I think of the wind, the incessant wind, the smell of seaweed on the beach, the sound of beach cobbles rolling in and out. Whale vertebrae strewn along many of the beaches.

- [Anne] Whale vertebrae? Really?

- [Marcia] And that we would use as chairs at our camp sites. When I was first working there in the 1980s, it still felt like the ice age, the glaciers were healthy and clumped and white. You could imagine that this was very much like the landscape of say, Northern Europe in the Ice Age.

- [Anne] Did you feel there like you were on a different clock?

- [Marcia] Certainly. I mean, we were looking further back in time to see how the folds and the faults were telling us about the building of these great mountains from more than 350 million years ago. So there are many different distances in deep time. That's the cognitive challenge of being a geologist, is understanding, having sort of a depth of field when we're talking about time. There's a while ago, there's a long ago, there's really far back in time, and some things are just barely visible on, there's a spec on the horizon. And I think developing that sense of proportion about time is the challenge.

- [Anne] And that's our challenge today, to develop a sense of deep time. Are you ready to think in the centuries instead of seconds? Eons instead of hours? Throw away your watch. Welcome to Deep Time, a special series from "To the Best of Our Knowledge." This is episode two, How Earth Keeps Time. When I started looking for alternatives or antidotes to the kind of anxiety-inducing, accelerated pace of modern life, the first person I thought of was Marcia Bjornerud. She's a fellow Wisconsinite, an author of a kind of manifesto for geologic literacy. It's called "Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World."

- [Marcia] Everything is full of time. Everything is made by time. That's what I mean by timefulness. But I do think that the geological worldview offers some kind of existential comfort that people may be craving in a time when so many institutions and belief systems that we used to think were solid have proven less than comforting.

- [Anne] So as I've been trying to kind of think my way into deep time, I've thought, "Well, maybe what I want is to be able to go for a walk and not just be aware of what's on the surface around me, the grass and the trees." And like, I think that's the world. Everything I see on the surface. But I don't know how many miles of planet underneath my feet. It never occurs to me to think about what's under my feet, what I'm walking on top of. Do you think about that when you walk?

- [Marcia] Often. And I of course respect and love vegetation and soil. But there are many times when I and other geologists wish we could just lift all that up and peak underneath.

- [Anne] And if I asked you to just describe what actually is there, past the bedrock, going all the way down, what's there?

- [Marcia] Well, here in southern Wisconsin, we would first encounter glacial deposits, and then a little bit deeper down, layered sedimentary rocks, stones, and sandstones. And then beneath that, we cross this surface called the Great Unconformity, which is exposed also in the grand canyon that separates the layered rocks from the older rocks.

- [Anne] And at this point, how far back in time are we?

- [Marcia] About 500 million years in the Cambrian. And then we'd be looking at Precambrian rocks. And here in southern Wisconsin we have the famous Baraboo Hills, we'd probably encounter some rocks about that age. And beneath that--

- [Anne] 500 Million?

- [Marcia] No, about 1.6 billion.

- [Anne] Wait, we've gone from 500 million to 1.6 billion?

- [Marcia] A big gap. Erosional gap.

- [Anne] That's a big gap. Wow. Okay, keep going.

- [Marcia] And then below that, probably some volcanic rocks. And then we'd probably hit the mantle of the earth. The next layer below the crust.

- [Anne] And what's the mantle like?

- [Marcia] Well, the mantle was formed, in the formation of the earth, the source of all rocks. All rocks ultimately can trace their lineage back to the mantle. The mantle melts and the melts rise and create the crust. The crust erodes and creates sedimentary rocks. So all rocks ultimately came from the mantle.

- [Anne] Are they still coming from the mantle.

- [Marcia] Yeah, in places like Japan or the mid-ocean ridges, mantle is melting and giving rise to new crust.

- [Anne] So the past really isn't past.

- [Marcia] It's with us. It's embracing us all the time.

- [Anne] Why do you think thinking in such long timescales is alien to many or most of us today? 'Cause I was thinking we all know that we live on shifting tectonic plates. We have gone to museums and marveled at dinosaur fossils that are a hundred or 200 million years old. We know that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. Do you think it's that the numbers are just so big that we can't relate to them?

- [Marcia] I think it's so many things. It ranges from personal vanity and fear of aging, we are told constantly that getting old is a bad thing, to the way that our economy and our political system run, where we have just a very blinkered view of time. We're always either on a two-year congressional election cycle, or annual report sort of cycles in the business world. So I'm trying to open the doors to people and help them see landscapes and rocks not as inert and insensate, but as fellow inhabitants of earth that have stories.

- [Anne] Yeah, when you write about it, it feels like the past is not dead.

- [Marcia] Absolutely. I mean, the rocks that formed in the distant past, those old ones are still with us, and they shape the landscapes we're familiar with. They're interacting with modern-day climate. Rocks are very responsive to new environments, so they're not dead. One thing I often say in intro geology classes is that rocks are not nouns, but verbs.

- [Anne] I love that.

- [Marcia] They're records of events, things that happened. They're not just static and inert, but active.

- [Anne] There are indigenous cultures that have the concept of rocks as alive and, in some cases, conscious. Does that resonate at all for you?

- [Marcia] It does in the sense, again, that I think rocks are sentient. They're paying attention to their environment. I hesitate to say they're conscious in any simple human sense. I talk to rocks, they don't often reply to me. I can say that I have a relationship with some rocks. I love rocks. Like the beautiful purple Baraboo quartzite. I think it's probably unrequited love.

- [Anne] Why? Tell me about that. What do you love about it?

- [Marcia] It's just the color is beautiful. The ripple marks that are 1.6 billion years old on some of the bedding surfaces are almost sensuous in their sculptured nature. It's just a beautiful old rock. So I think in the West, since the time of the Enlightenment, we've been told that matter is inert and mute. And we haven't explored this idea of idea having some sort of mutual relationships with matter. So I hesitate to answer the question, but I know for myself, having spent so much of my adult life in the company of rocks, they are good companions.

- [Anne] Maybe another way to put it is, in Western culture and in science, I think we draw a line between animate and inanimate. So is that a division that is meaningful to you or that you would wanna trouble a bit?

- [Marcia] Well, as a structural geologist, I do think of rocks as animate, as someone who realizes that mountains grow. Mountains don't just exist. They come into being through tectonic collisions. We model mountains growing. They are moving, rocks are moving. So in the sense animacy, I will say yes, rocks are animate, they're moving around, and no question about that.

- [Anne] Animacy does kind of imply some sort of personhood, though, don't you think?

- [Marcia] Possibly. There are countries that are granting personhood to river systems and to areas of land.

- [Anne] Legal standing, at least.

- [Marcia] Legal standing.

- [Anne] Yeah. It sounds like you do go out rock hunting places where you might pick up a rock just for its beauty and its interest. I mean, I do this. I don't know, my family's culture, we're the kind of people who pick up rocks and shells. And sometimes we bring them home, sometimes we feel it's better to leave them. Yeah, I'm just curious to know more about what that is, that feeling.

- [Marcia] Well, I think that there are rock people who are sensitive. Even if they don't know the story of these things, they understand that there is some deep biography there. For me, I don't collect rocks, but if I see a rock that is just an odd configuration and that has a story that I haven't heard before, then I might put it in my pocket and bring it home.

- [Anne] You have rocks at home then?

- [Marcia] Oh yes.

- [Anne] And so if I came to your house, would they be all over? Are they in bowls? Are they on shelves?

- [Marcia] They're outside. They're on windows sills. They're on bed stands. They're all over the place. Sometimes I need to release them back into the wild.

- [Anne] Do you move them about?

- [Marcia] I do, yeah. And I have even more in my office.

- [Anne] What about the earth itself? Could you say earth is conscious?

- [Marcia] Well, one recent definition that I've read for consciousness has to do with the degree of connectivity between components in a complex system. If that's the criterion or one criterion for consciousness, then earth is conscious, because everything is interconnected, from the center of the earth to the surface, there are so many examples. For instance, the process of subduction, which is really the signature tectonic process of earth in which ocean crust, once it becomes cool and dense enough, sinks back into the mantle, and can generate terrible earthquakes and tsunamis in places like Indonesia or Japan. But that process is essential for the long-term habitability of the earth in that it unites the atmosphere-hydrosphere system with the interior, there's water that is taken with the downgoing oceanic slab back into the mantle. And there's probably an ocean's worth of water in the mantle, which is kind of a planetary savings bank, and eventually that's exhaled again through vulcanism.

- [Anne] So the planet itself is kind of breathing.

- [Marcia] In a sense, it is. Volcanoes are exhaling. Subduction is inhaling. There's some kind of deep wisdom there. These aren't just connected cycles, they're processes that maintain some kind of steady state.

- [Anne] So I wanted to think about deep time, partly because I felt like maybe that long-term time perspective would help me deal with the existential fear and dread that comes with an awareness of climate change and global warming. Does it help, you find? I mean, does being aware of the long, long ages of the planet put climate change in perspective or does it make it more frightening?

- [Marcia] Well, I can think of it from a scientific point of view, which is that the earth will be fine. The changes in climate that we are really causing, the earth will deal with them and there'll be new ecosystems that will eventually emerge. But the human part of me mourns what we've done and the rapidity with which old, well-established ecosystems and landscapes have been changed. And I worry for humanity, what the next decades or century will bring as we cope with a new set of rules. That's really the scary thing to me, is that we've been able to understand the way the planet has worked through the Holocene, but now we are changing the boundary conditions and the parameters, and many of the models we've developed aren't really going to be very relevant as we go further into the Anthropocene. We can't necessarily use the past as the key to the future. And there's real sadness there, that our cultures have grown up with a certain version of earth and it'll be radically different.

- [Anne] Which is why I think ultimately talking about and thinking about deep time matters. There are real stakes. It's not just about waking up to the geological wonder of what life on this planet is. Being able to perceive some more of the magic that's under our feet, that's about the future of the planet and of our species.

- [Marcia] Yeah, so to me, an understanding of who we are as earthlings, understanding how things came to be the way they are, that we're part of a continuum, that we live in geologic time too. There'll be a geologic future--

- [Anne] If there's a deep time, there's a deep--

- [Marcia] There's a deep future as well. And we should envision ourselves in that future geologic time. The Anthropocene, for example, I think is an important concept that most people are aware of now. But in some ways I think it's preventing people from seeing past the current moment. The Anthropocene is all about the much too large footprint we are having on the planet now. I'd like to start thinking about what is a post-Anthropocene world, the distant geologic future. How can we imagine ourselves living differently as human earthlings.

- [Anne] Maybe it's to imagine what the earth might be like, whether or not we are here.

- [Marcia] I like to think we will be here, as a human. I think we can do better. I'm optimist.

- [Anne] Thank you so much. This has been such a pleasure.

- [Marcia] Thanks, Anne.

- [Anne] Marcia Bjornerud wrote is a professor of geology and environmental studies at Lawrence University, and the author of "Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World." So if there's a moral component to deepening our sense of time, and if we have a responsibility to care for future generations, what do we owe the past? There are ancient relics scattered all over this continent. Traces of people who came before us thousands of years ago. Do we even notice?

- [Stephen] I feel like I was raised with a story of the landscape that didn't match what I was seeing. I'm from the southeast, I'm from Tennessee, so I was raised with a story that Native American people didn't really live there, there wasn't widespread culture. Maybe just little bands went through. What I was being told didn't match the reality that I saw.

- [Steve] I have not.

- [Stephen] We are in an eastern hardwood forest, so right now we're standing in a beach grove. Okay, we're about ready to start our hike here. Probably gonna be five miles each way.

- [Brooks] I think we just ought to get our headlamps out and walk around the corner and just walk up into the cage.

- [Steve] Okay, that's good.

- [Stephen] We're gonna walk up and you'll see this big entrance and we'll just walk right in. So if you get a headlamp out.

- [Anne] What will they find in that cave? Keep listening. This is episode two of Deep Time, a partnership with the Center for Humans and Nature and "To the Best of Our Knowledge," from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Go for a walk and try thinking about the past buried right beneath your feet. Not the geologic past, the human past. Thousands of years ago, people lived and walked, built homes and cities and made art all over this continent. The evidence of their lives is still there and can still speak to us, if we know where to look. Steve Paulson is here to show us how.

- [Steve] Okay, so we are about to go for a long hike, right?

- [Stephen] We are about to go for a long hike. We're gonna walk through the beautiful spring. It's a gorgeous day. Absolutely blue, clear sky. 70 degrees. Couldn't be nicer.

- [Steve] Stephen Alvarez is a National Geographic photographer and founder of the Ancient Art Archive. For years he's been documenting ancient rock art around the world.

- [Brooks] I see blackberry starting to happen. It makes me happy.

- [Steve] And that's Brooks Edgerton, one of my oldest friends,

- [Brooks] I'm taking a pack.

- [Steve] The three of us are setting out to visit one of the most significant ancient rock art sites in North America. A place that's giving a whole new picture of the human history of this continent. But there's just one catch. I can't tell you where it is, at least not in any way that would point you to it.

- [Stephen] We are on the Southern Cumberland Plateau. It starts in Pennsylvania and goes to Alabama. We're gonna go into a cave that has art on the ceiling.

- [Steve] And this is the unnamed cave. Am I allowed to say that or not? No, I can't say that. Okay.

- [Stephen] I can neither confirm nor deny that.

- [Steve] But I can call this an unnamed cave.

- [Stephen] This is an named cave. This cave has a name. We just don't tell people what it is for the sake of the preservation of the artwork, but also out of respect for the place. I'm sure that the people who put the artwork in here had a name that is certainly lost to time.

- [Steve] Okay. I guess we better get going here.

- [Stephen] All right.

- [Steve] The art in the cave were headed to was first discovered in 1998. It's one of thousands of limestone caves in the Cumberland Plateau. Archeologists found a small fragment of river cane from a torch mark on a wall, that's been radiocarbon dated to roughly 2000 years ago. This is what people burned to see inside the cave. On the ceiling of the cave, they found hundreds of glyphs carved into the mud on a scale that's unprecedented.

- [Stephen] There's a quarter acre of engraved ceiling in this cave.

- [Steve] A quarter acre.

- [Stephen] Yeah.

- [Steve] That must be pretty unusual. I mean, are there other sites with so much rock art in this area?

- [Stephen] This is the only one that I know of that has this number of images in it, this density of images.

- [Steve] In the world?

- [Stephen] In North America certainly. 2000 years ago, someone goes into this cave, someone or someones, and they spend a lot of time, a lot, a lot of time engraving the ceiling for reasons that we don't know. And they put these images on the ceiling, that we don't know of from the pantheon of Mississippian art. These aren't figures we're familiar with.

- [Steve] Just the sense of time that we're experiencing here. I mean, it's sort of this direct contact with people who lived 2000 years ago.

- [Stephen] Well, that's the miracle of art, right? It lets the past talk straight to us. I had this experience, once working for National Geographic, and I got to go into Chauvet, which is an art cave in France. And the paintings in Chauvet are 30,000-plus years old. You walk into that cave and it is like time collapses. And here is an artist speaking straight to you across this gulf of time that is truly unimaginable. It's almost 10 years ago, and I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about it.

- [Steve] Does it always, I don't know, touch you in some sort of deep way when you go into one of these caves?

- [Stephen] Yeah, it, it does. And I've always been fascinated with rock art. Even before I saw my first panel in the Southwest, I was fascinated by the photographs of them. That idea that you can make a symbol and it can outlast you and tell people in the future something about you now. I mean, that might be why I'm a photographer. Making artwork is a basic human endeavor. It's how we communicate across time and space.

- [Steve] I mean, there's something about... I mean, if we wanted to try to delineate what is unique about humans in comparison with all the other animal species out there, it's making visual images that's gotta be right up there.

- [Stephen] Yeah. We're the only ones that do it. And for most of human history, which is really long, we've been a species for almost 300,000 years, our important stories get recorded as images, not as words. And so visual language has definitely affected our evolution.

- [Steve] Say more about that. Why do you think visual images have affected our evolution?

- [Stephen] Well, I'll look at it this way. The first evidence that we make artwork, that we make paint, that we engrave things comes from the southern coast of Africa, about a hundred thousand years ago. And at first we're probably painting ourselves. And then we're painting objects and then we're carving objects. And these objects could have been used to communicate with these different groups a long way apart to prove cooperation in the past. They could have been gift items, items of exchange. But whatever they did, they strengthened those communal bonds and let us work together in big groups, so that when we expand from Africa into the rest of the world, we do it with an artistic toolkit built into our DNA. And along the places we go, there is artwork that lines up with the first arrival of human beings. And so that story of expansion, that story of our venturing into the planet, is recorded directly. We don't have to wonder what those people thought. They told us. It's in some instances out there on the landscape.

- [Steve] Okay. We have just walked our five miles or so. Is that what it was, roughly?

- [Stephen] Yeah, just we're almost within side of the cave. It's up around this corner. We've just walked through a lot of the spring wildflowers. In the background I can hear a white-eyed vireo singing. And an airplane.

- [Steve] Right. As much as we are... It sort of seems like we're in the middle of nowhere, but there still are airplanes out there. I mean, which says something. I mean, we might think we're in wilderness, but there've always been people here.

- [Stephen] Yeah. There is this idea of the American wilderness, and you can understand why that idea occurred. The large populations of Native Americans were largely decimated by disease before what we would call the European settlers got here. So we could maybe excuse people for thinking it was an unpopulated wilderness, but it was sort of like a well-managed garden where the previous tenants had just left.

- [Steve] Yeah.

- [Stephen] This was a highly managed landscape.

- [Steve] So these people who made this art roughly 2000 years ago were what we refer to as the Woodland people. What do we know about them?

- [Stephen] They would've had agriculture. They would've also done hunting and gathering. They did build some mounds. They lived in these valleys along the Tennessee River. But there's no direct contact between them and any of the modern Native American tribes. Certainly no contact with the Europeans.

- [Steve] So what do we need to do to get ready to go into the cave here?

- [Stephen] I think we just ought to get our headlamps out and walk around the corner and just walk up into the cave.

- [Steve] Okay. Sounds good.

- [Stephen] Oh, so before we get into construction, the artwork is in a mud veneer on the ceiling. So even if you feel yourself falling over, do not touch the ceiling. 'Cause all it takes is a brush of a hand, and artwork that you can't even see is gone. And there will be low sections where we are stooping. There might be a hands and knees crawl, so if you have a backpack on, make sure it's not scraping the scene.

- [Steve] Okay. Oh wow.

- [Stephen] Yeah. When I said it was gonna be obvious...

- [Steve] Yeah.

- [Stephen] Yeah, that's a 30-foot borehole right under the side of the mountain. Obvious cave.

- [Steve] Yeah. Pretty grand entrance I have to say.

- [Stephen] Isn't it something?

- [Steve] Yeah.

- [Stephen] Water's cutting down. Right? So you have big passages like this that get abandoned as a lower channel gets cut. We call those fossil passages.

- [Steve] How far back does the cave go? Do you know?

- [Stephen] This thing is really long miles, multi-miles. Let's go straight to the artwork.

- [Steve] Sure.

- [Stephen] You asked about that.

- [Steve] Yes.

- [Stephen] There's one right there. This water's all shallow. We're about to drop down into the stoop way, and beginning right about there. That rock is sticking out. The ceiling is engraved.

- [Steve] Okay. Oh, yeah.

- [Stephen] Oh, yeah.

- [Steve] Wow. The art here is nothing like the famous Lascaux paintings, so huge bulls and horses in full color.

- [Stephen] So if the eye is a natural feature.

- [Steve] We see swirls and crosshatched engravings in the mud ceiling.

- [Stephen] You can see how its tongue comes out. It .

- [Steve] It's not always clear what these images represent. What do you think that is?

- [Stephen] I think it's a rattlesnake. That's the rattle there. And it's coiled. So it's what, two and a half feet across? Three feet across?

- [Steve] Right.

- [Stephen] And we're still inside of the entrance. Right? There's the right there.

- [Steve] Amazing. I realize would be so close.

- [Stephen] And how much is up here?

- [Steve] There seem to be birds and wasps. A 10-foot long serpent.

- [Stephen] The big cornman figure is right over there.

- [Steve] A human-like figure holding a rattle or weapon.

- [Stephen] There's an arm sticking up here.

- [Steve] And it looks like they're, I don't know, it's like rays coming out of either sun or it could be feathers or, I don't know what that is.

- [Stephen] Transformation is a theme we see a lot in rock art. Things are turning into other things.

- [Steve] But presumably then the people coming in were being transformed.

- [Stephen] Presumably. Yeah.

- [Steve] Yeah.

- [Stephen] Yeah. Are you coming in here to alter your consciousness? Probably. Okay. I see the bear. See the two ears?

- [Steve] Oh yeah. Right.

- [Stephen] Likely a person in the bear costume dancing.

- [Steve] Doesn't it make you wonder if they actually did that?

- [Stephen] Oh, I know, right? So imagine them in here in the bear costume.

- [Steve] Well, doesn't it make you wonder if it was a ceremonial space, would they have played music?

- [Stephen] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, 'cause you're hearing the echo. This is a really interesting audio space.

- [Steve] Yeah.

- [Stephen] Were they playing music here? Was this a bunch of people hung on their backs doing this while also a bunch of other people chanted and played rattles?

- [Steve] Yeah. So you said that you've been creating a 3D model. So what are you doing?

- [Stephen] So what we do is we take thousands of overlapping photographs and then use computer software to triangulate each pixel in 3D space. And we could see things that you couldn't see with the naked eye on the computer screen.

- [Steve] So you've photographed.

- [Stephen] Every square inch of the ceiling multiple times.

- [Steve] Wow.

- [Stephen] Over the course of months. It took two years for my knees to recover. It's a lot of stooping in this space. But for the first time you see the work in its entirety. Imagine if you didn't know anything about Christianity or any of the Davidic traditions and you walked into a church and you saw the stained glass windows, but you could only see like half of one of the figures at a time, you'd have a hard time sorting out what that story was. But if you could step back and see the whole thing, you'd have a better shot at it. And that's what the 3D modeling gives us a chance to do, is to take a step back and appreciate the breadth of what went on in here. Someone spent, or some people spent, hundreds if not thousands of hours scraping things onto the ceiling. And you're sitting there right now. How does that not just give you a connection to those people that we otherwise have no cultural connection to? One of the things we're after at the Ancient Art Archive is to just explain to people how complex people in the past were. The obvious thing is to look at the deep past and human beings a long time ago as being primitive because we look at their technology and it's stone tools. Our material culture is just so stinking good that it's hard not to think of someone who used a rock as their knife as primitive. But you look at their artwork, and artwork is really not changed very much ever. There's a famous story of Picasso going into a Altamira and coming out just shaking his head going, "We have invented nothing."

- [Steve] Yeah.

- [Stephen] And it's probably an apocryphal story, but it's also that doesn't stop it from being true.

- [Steve] Do you ever just come into a cave like this and just lie down and look up?

- [Stephen] Oh, I've spent a huge amount of my time laying right where Brooks is, just enjoying the environment.

- [Steve] If you lie down, it's sort of like stars.

- [Stephen] I know.

- [Steve] Wow.

- [Stephen] You see these two parallel lines?

- [Steve] Yeah.

- [Stephen] And they're cross-hatched. That snake is the last definitive figure. And it stretches all the way back.

- [Steve] Oh, wow.

- [Stephen] It comes out of this rib right here. So they're using this rib in a wall to make turn into the snake. And that's it. That's the end.

- [Steve] Yeah. It's like the speckles and the cosmos.

- [Anne] And we'll leave them there, sitting in the dark. Stephen Alvarez, a photographer, National Geographic explorer, and founder of the Ancient Art Archive, along with writer Brooks Edgerton and our own Steve Paulson. Wanna see that ancient art yourself? There's a collection of Stephen's photos on our website. You'll find it a Next, what does it mean to see a story that's 2000 years old that you have a direct connection to? What does it tell you about yourself? This is episode two of Deep Time, a partnership with the Center for Humans and Nature and "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. The mysterious mud engravings discovered in a cave in the American Southeast were made by people who vanished a long time ago. But their symbols and stories were kept alive for hundreds, even thousands of years by their descendants, until the US government forcibly removed them from their homeland, fracturing their connection to that deep past.

- [Dustin] Hello, my name is Dustin Illetewahke Mater. I'm a Chickasaw citizen and a fine art artist and graphic designer. I live in Ada, Oklahoma, in the Chickasaw Nation Indian Territory. My grandfather walked the Trail of Tears in 1850 when he was five years old, from northwest Alabama all the way to Ada. My grandmother, who lived to be over a century old and had her wits about her, she would tell me stories about him, about his family, and just kind of where we come from. She was like a living repository of knowledge of our culture and our community. And so I had these amazing stories, but she could never show me those symbols. She could never show me those artworks. I grew up in the late eighties and early nineties, and there wasn't this kind of stuff. I was envious of our Lakota friends and some friends of different tribal communities who had their iconography in their stories, and at a time it wasn't cool to be Indian, it wasn't cool to be Native. And I remember what it felt like not having our symbols readily available, not having that cultural identity in a visual standpoint.

- [Anne] So how do you reconnect to your own deep past? For Dustin Mater, the discovery of ancient petroglyphs and Southeastern cave art was literally life-changing. Steve reached him in Oklahoma.

- [Steve] So the cave that I visited is in the Cumberland Plateau, which is this big area in the southeast, which stretches across several states. And you live in Oklahoma, which is a long way from there. As a Chickasaw artist, I know you feel a really strong connection with the ancient rock art there. Can you explain that connection?

- [Dustin] Yeah, there is a direct connection to those petroglyphs. My grandmother would tell me these amazing stories, traditional stories of our community and prior, and then they started seeing Southeastern American Indian art in the early aughts. And that's what adjusted my whole trajectory. 'Cause it was like everything that my grandmother had talked about and stuff that I had read was in a physical location and object. And it was just like, "Oh my God, I know what that is. I know what that is." And it's just... I don't know, it's exciting.

- [Steve] Do you remember any specific stories or any of the motifs that sort of matched the stories that you had heard growing up with and what you later saw in the art?

- [Dustin] Well, one of the stories was just talking about the sun circle, and in Chickasaw culture the sun markings on earth or on a person kind of denoted that the creator, Ababinili, lives within the woodpecker design, and how it was so sacred to our people, the four directions. But in a certain way that we had it in our sun circles, I just see it as a very long line of people and community, and that's what spurs a lot of my creativity as an artist.

- [Steve] Wow. Huh. So for people who are not familiar with your art, can you describe it and can you describe sort of how your own art has taken on this history and some of these symbols and motifs?

- [Dustin] Gosh, I don't know how to describe it. It's very ornate. I have a design motif that's called sky pattern. It looks like a looping knots and peas, if you will, that just keep on looping and looping and then folding in on themselves, and it is actually a very traditional style. The finest artisans in antiquity who did this style emanated from what is now Memphis, but used to be called the Chickasaw Bluffs. And that has been one of my design motifs in my work over the last decade. But my work is pretty multimedia. I also have a pop art stuff where I'm using Stormtrooper helmets and intermingling that with Southeastern warriors tattoos and markings, because we were undefeated in any of our conflicts. And so that kind of warrior society that the Mandalorians embody, that was how we embody and saw ourselves. And so it's a lot of sugar with that medicine. You have "Star Wars." I don't know, it's really hard to describe.

- [Steve] So I have to tell you, so my experience of being in this cave, which was amazing, I think about it all the time, it stays with me. And I mean, these engravings, on the one hand, they seemed utterly mysterious. I don't know who these people were. And yet on the other hand, there was something so familiar. Does that make sense to you? The mystery on the one hand, and yet there's also familiarity there?

- [Dustin] Absolutely. Absolutely. There is that mystery there because it is an unknown culture, it is an unknown people. When I look at the work that they left behind, especially when they leave those hand prints, I so wanna touch it just because it's like you're time-traveling every time you look at these pieces and you're kind of taking it in, you're a time traveler. It gives me chills, but it also gives me such awe that they would go into these places full of fear, full of the cultural monsters of the zeitgeist of the time, and they still went in there. And there were monsters, there were water panthers, there were like different kinds of rattlesnakes, and there were bears. And there's definitely a component of going into the womb and coming out again. When I go to the homelands in Alabama or Mississippi or Tennessee, to me it's like making a religious pilgrimage. I feel like when those people went to those locations, it was the same. These were churches, these were the cathedrals. And when you went into these places, you went in one way and when you came out, you were changed.

- [Steve] I have to tell you that when I told people that I went to this cave with this ancient art in the Southeast, a lot of people were really surprised. I mean, they had no idea that there was ancient art in these caves. And you never think about the pictographs in the Southwest. But there's all this extensive art that it seems like most people don't even know about. That there's this ancient history right beneath their feet, that people lived there thousands of years ago. Have you had that experience as well?

- [Dustin] Absolutely. In some ways, I'm grateful that there was an out of sight, out of mind aspect to it. Because of that, these sites were preserved. So much was wiped off the map to make way for what would be considered, I guess progress, these great cities and mounds. There were more people that were living in Cahokia, which is now roughly near St. Louis, than there were in London just a thousand years ago. There were great cities and communities up and down the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi, all the way up to Toronto. And these pockets, these underworld sites, they were preserved because people forgot. To hear that you got to go is so exciting. I'm so envious. I cannot wait for my adventure going out there.

- [Steve] I'm so grateful that I could go. It seems by contemporary mainstream Western culture standards, we don't have much of a sense of time, of deep time. I mean, we tend to focus on the short term. Our culture is so kind of time-illiterate. And then we're talking about these people that lived thousands of years ago, which we don't even know about. I guess I'm sort of wondering what are the consequences of being so ignorant of this deep history that's kind of right under our feet?

- [Dustin] Oh, you can see it around you. There is like this aimlessness for a lot of people because they don't recognize, they think this is the New World, that America started whenever Columbus got here, or whenever colonists got here, or George Washington came on. There were people here long, long before. There was a site in Louisiana called the Watson Creek Bend Mound Site, and it's almost as old as the Great Pyramid of Giza. The artifacts that they find, and the more they dig, the more people will recognize this has never been an empty place, this has been occupied for tens of thousands of years. At the very least, I would imagine, at least 20,000 plus.

- [Steve] So Dustin, one final question. For people who are listening to us, listening to you, if someone were to go for a walk, like later today, wherever they are, is there anything you'd suggest to them to help them shift their sense of time to have a deeper awareness of time? Any suggestions?

- [Dustin] Gosh. For me, before the day has even really begun, I try to just take a moment where I'm not speaking, I'm not looking at my phone. I don't know what people owe me. I don't know what I owe anyone else. I don't know what the weather's gonna be like beyond what I see in front of me, and just take a moment as it is. The clouds moving and the way that the nature interacts and breathes, you're not separate from it, you are a part of it. Allow it to kind of wash over you because it'll give you that deeper connection to those that came before you and hopefully those that'll come after you. Don't lose that sense of awe. Every time I go out and I just open myself up to that, I'm just left in a timeless sense of awe. It makes me want to create. It makes me wanna move.

- [Anne] Dustin Illetewahke Mater is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, a fine artist and graphic designer. His work is in the Smithsonian and many public and private collections, and you can see some of it on our website, at Deep Time is a series of episodes exploring time beyond the clock. It's about reconnecting with the other dimensions of time, geological, biological, cosmic, ancestral, produced by "To the Best of Our Knowledge" in partnership with the Center for Humans and Nature, and with generous support from the Kalliopea Foundation. Our production staff includes Angelo Batista, Shannon Henry Kleiber, and Charles Monroe-Kane. Mark Riechers is our digital producer, our technical director and sound designer is Joe Hardtke, with help from Sarah Hopewell. Additional music this week by Nuisance and the Pangolins. The executive producer of "To the Best of Our Knowledge" is Steve Paulson, and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Thanks to you for listening. Be well and come back awesome.

- [Automated Voice] PRX.

Last modified: 
April 04, 2024