According to the New York Times, carvings found in a cave in Kentucky are the earliest known examples of the Cherokee alphabet. The Cherokee alphabet is a syllabary devised by Sequoyah, a well-known Cherokee silversmith and soldier. Sequoyah observed how European settlers used writing to communicate, and was inspired to devise a similar system for his native Cherokee language.
The carvings found in the cave don’t spell anything. Instead, they are just a series of symbols, similar to the handwriting primers you may have used to practice your penmanship in school. This suggests that the carver was practicing forming the shapes of the letters in the wall of the cave. In addition to the letters, there is also a date, but it’s blurry. It could be either 1818 or 1808. If it’s 1808, the syllabary would have been in a very early stage of development, and the letters were probably carved by Sequoyah himself. If it’s 1818, the letters could have been carved by one of Sequoyah’s students, but it would still beat the earliest known example of the syllabary by at least a year.
Sequoyah’s wife destroyed some of his early work on the syllabary because she thought it was “the devil’s work,” according to the New York Times article. However, he was able to teach the alphabet he developed to many of his fellow Cherokee, and they soon outpaced their white neighbors in literacy. The alphabet is still in use today. One of the cool things that Kenneth B. Tankersley, the professor who discovered the carvings, hopes to learn is the degree to which some of the characters in the alphabet are related to ancient Cherokee glyphs.