Just outside Cullowhee, a 240-square-foot soapstone boulder lies in a field along Caney Fork Creek. From a distance, the boulder appears like many others that dot the mountain landscape. Up close, however, the face of Judaculla Rock reveals an enduring piece of native history and an archaeological mystery that continues to puzzle historians and scientists.
The rock is covered by hundreds of curious markings that elude easy description. Some believe those markings, known as petroglyphs, are merely abstract geometric shapes. Others suggest they commemorate victories in battle, indicate altered states or represent marks made by spirit beings themselves.
Judaculla Rock derives its name from Tsul´kălū´, or Tsu-tla-ka-la, a powerful hunter spirit from Cherokee lore. According to Cherokee tradition, Tsul´kălū´ is the “master of game” who ensures successful hunts, and many local landmarks and places are named after him — including Cullowhee itself, derived from Judaculla-whee or “Judaculla’s place.”
But at least some of the petroglyphs predate recorded Cherokee history. The earliest carvings are estimated to be thousands of years old.
The leading theory of the National Park Service, which added Judaculla Rock to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013, is that the boulder served as a stylized, three-dimensional map of the surrounding terrain. Other Native American petroglyphs are found near sites where multiple trails converged, and some markings on the rock appear to correspond to local landmarks such as Devil’s Courthouse, Tanasee Bald and the Cherokee settlement of Kanuga.
No one is certain what the images mean, says Asheville-based author and podcaster Micah Hanks, who has been visiting Judaculla Rock for decades. Other regional examples of petroglyphs feature more recognizable imagery such as human and animal footprints, he says, making Judaculla Rock more of an enigma. “With the variety of theories about the rock that exist, it becomes evident how easily the ambiguous nature of the markings lend themselves to the imagination,” he continues.
That imagination inspired Joshua P. Warren, the author of Haunted Asheville and creator of Asheville Ghost Tours, to put forward his own theory on Judaculla Rock. “I had always heard of a great mystery regarding strange, undecipherable carvings on a rock near Cullowhee,” Warren says. “When I finally made the trip to have a look at them, in the early 2000s, I was mesmerized. Why did ancient people create these markings?”
Warren made a connection to experiments he had conducted as a child. “The surface of the rock reminded me of the random ‘soup’ of microorganisms I would see as a kid when examining a drop of local creek water under a cheap microscope,” he explains. “The resemblance was so uncanny that I wondered whether or not the ancient people who made those markings were depicting the same thing.”
In a video describing his hypothesis (avl.mx/a2o), Warren uses a drop of water atop a thin sheet of mica — a mineral found across Western North Carolina that naturally breaks into thin, translucent sheets — to observe an amoeba suspended in a microscope slide. Using this crude, natural microscope, Warren says he could “easily see the microscopic life” in the slide. While he admits that the theory sounds far-fetched, he hopes that local microbiologists will take an interest in his theory and evaluate it for themselves.
Thomas Martin, an associate professor of aquatic ecology and head of the biology department at Western Carolina University, says there’s some scientific plausibility to Warren’s speculation. Small droplets of water can act as rudimentary microscopes, Martin confirms, and simple rock crystal lenses found in modern-day Iraq have been dated to 700 B.C.
It’s possible, then, that the creators of the Judaculla Rock petroglyphs used some type of ancient natural microscope to observe microorganisms and then carve them into the boulder’s face. “There is absolutely no reason to think that native Americans wouldn’t have been aware of that phenomenon,” Martin says.
However, Martin points out that there is a plethora of other explanations for the carvings on the rock that do not depend on rewriting the histories of native people or microscopes. “Given the many possible reasons for the carving, in my opinion, an early microbiologist wishing to document his or her observations isn’t a sufficient answer,” he says.
Touching the past
Stephen Yerka, tribal historic preservation officer with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a specialist in noninvasive archaeology, says that while Warren’s theory is not something the EBCI would immediately discount, it still remains conjecture.
Archaeological evidence, Yerka says, suggests that ancient people knew about internal parasites on some level. But such knowledge would have been limited to specialists — those who practiced medicine — and may not have been passed down in the oral tradition.
Instead, Yerka says the images on Judaculla Rock are “the closest connection we have to the ancient human mind” and “representative of the way these people saw the world.” Yerka also adds that “there are things about it that are carried in the oral tradition that are not shared with other people.”
While Yerka says that the EBCI is happy for people to interact with the rock in respectful ways, he adds that it’s important to honor the ancestors who created the markings and respect the Cherokee history of the rock. “It’s like any religion. You don’t learn the mysteries of a religion from the outside,” he says.
“The carvings and the use of that stone date back 4,000 years or more,” Yerka continues. “Over the next several thousand years it was visited by Cherokees for different purposes: stone bowl making, making petroglyphs, a place for prayer. All those things tie in together.”
Ultimately, Yerka stresses that it’s important to remember there’s a living community in Western North Carolina that maintains a sacred connection to the rock. “A lot of times these fantastical claims get a lot more attention than the fact that this is a part of what was originally 140,000 square miles of Cherokee territory before European contact,” Yerka says. “It’s making a big hoopla and taking it out of the hands of the Cherokee.”
Chances to see
Whatever Judaculla Rock’s true story is, its recent past also demonstrates the difficulty in making local history accessible to residents and visitors while also honoring and preserving it. For years, the rock sat unprotected, seeing its share of vandalism, graffiti and misuse. In 2016 alone, vandals spraypainted their initials on the rock in six different locations, and a Bryson City man turned himself in the same year after stealing an informative sign from the site.
In 2009, Jackson County, the EBCI, the N.C. Office of State Archaeology and the Caney Fork Community Development Council developed a plan to help preserve the rock for future generations. The site now features an elevated viewing platform with informative signs, as well as features to control erosion and sediment that were degrading the petroglyphs.
For more information about the rock and how to visit it, go to www.discoverjacksonnc.com.