29 June 2011

Carving of a Mammoth Could Be the Oldest Known Artwork in the Americas

rough sketch of the etched Vero bone
Since 1913, numerous bones of Pleistocene megafauna have been found in Vero Beach and nearby Van Valkenburg Creek in Florida. These have ranged from the remains of mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, tapirs, horses, llamas, dire wolves, and even saber-tooth cats (Purdy et al 5). In 2006 or 2007, a fossil collector, James Kennedy, found a 15.75” long, fragmented bone from near the site (4). It wasn't until February 2009, that he noticed the faint carving of a proboscidean—that is, the order of elephants and mammoths—on the bone's surface. The significance of this carving sank in, and he contacted several anthropologists to examine the bone.

Over the next years, a team of scientists from at least six different institutions conducted a battery of tests to determine the age of the carving and its authenticity. Forgeries of ancient indigenous art have been common in the last century, such as the Holly Oak pendant that surfaced in 1889. The shell gorget carved with the image of a mammoth was radiocarbon dated to 1530±110 (Corliss), and appears to be a 19th-century carving on an older shell.

To dispel the possibilities of forgery, the Vero bone was subjected to rare earth analysis, optical microscopy, scanning electron microscopy (SEM), examination of backscattered SEM, energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy, and reflectance transformation imaging (Purdy et al 3).

Research determined the bone was from the Vero area (7) and that the engravings are from the same era as the bone. The incised areas bear the same weathering marks as the bone's surface. The fragment contrasted greatly with a modern bone found in the area (8). The original cuts into the bone revealed no trace metals and were extremely different than an intentional incision made by the scientists with a razor (10).

The image is clearly recognizable as a mammoth, due to the shape of its high-domed skull, the proportionally correct tusks and trunk, and its front legs being longer than its hind legs (Purdy et al 4, 13). Such imagery is common in ancient Europe, but heretofore unproven to exist in the ancient Americas. Mammoths became extinct 13,000 years ago, so that establishes the minimum age for the bone (4), while the possibility exists that it could date back to 20,000 years ago.

An intriguing diamond pattern of the cross-hatched lines flanks the mammoth image. While visible to the left, the lines fade and aren’t visible on the worn, weathered right side of the bone (11).

The artistic subject matter may be clear, but the species of the bone cannot be precisely determined. It is a mineralized bone, so DNA cannot be extracted (5). Due to its size and shape, mostly likely it belonged to a mammoth, mastodon, or, possibly, but less likely, a giant sloth (4).

In the scholarly article published the Journal of Archaeological Science, the research team is cautious about declaring this Vero mammoth engraving the oldest art of the Americas. They point out a curious discovery in 1959 at the highly contested archaeological site, Hueyatlaco, near Valsequillo, Mexico. There Juan Armenta Camacho found a mastodon pelvis incised with images of several Ice Age animals, including a mammoth. The pelvis has since been lost (Purdy et al 14). Shrouded with controversy, this object will hopefully resurface. Found in Oklahoma, the Cooper Bison skull is the oldest known painted object in the Americas and dates back to 12,200 years ago. Cross-hatched lines and other abstract designs appear on rocks found in Texas, which date from approximately 11,500 years ago (Bower).

The research team briefly writes, “The similarity of the Vero engraving with Upper Paleolithic European art begs the question of whether this similarity is simply due to coincidence or if there exists a more direct Ice Age connection between North American and Europe as Stanford and Bradley (2004) have argued” (Purdy et al 12). That is as far as they state. Personally, I believe time will reveal that ancient peoples’ migration routes are more complex than imaginable; however, logically, it would follow that if two different groups both saw a mammoth, their rendering of the animal would be similar.

The carving is quite elegant. The lines are curvilinear, and one would imagine that an artist who can butcher a mammoth would be extremely deft at handling a knife. The multiple carving marks along the contour could be mistakes, but they imply motion. The far, hind leg is completely carved out, suggesting a shadow. The base of the trunk and front foreleg are not clearly terminated; rather, they fade into the negative space.

Online responses to mainstream press articles about the find are predictably horrible. Some suggest that the artist had to be European not Native American, even though it accepted by even the staunchest Clovis First advocate that Paleo-Indians had widely settled the Americas by 11,000 BCE. Basic science, both Native American and Western, is apparently not getting through the general public.

Other people can’t believe anything so realistic could be made so long ago. But much ancient art is highly naturalist due to the keen observational skills a hunter would require. The artist had living models from which to work. The profile of the walking mammoth shows receding perspective in the tusks and legs. Popular culture has dictated that Native American art is flat with no perspective, but this view comes from the early 20th century, and even pre-20th century ledger art often displayed foreshortening and perspective. The artist was observing from life, not necessary from a stylized artistic tradition, so the realistic rendering makes sense.

  • Bower, Bruce. "Bone may display oldest art in Americas." Science News. 27 June 2011.
  • Purdy, B.A., Jones, K.S., Mecholsky, J.J., Bourne, G., Hulbert, R.C., MacFadden, B.J., Church, K.L., Warren, M.W., Jorstad, T.F., Stanford, D.J., Wachowiak, M.J., Speakman, R.J. "Earliest Art in the Americas: Incised Image of a Proboscidean on a Mineralized Extinct Animal Bone from Vero Beach, Florida." Journal of Archaeological Science (2011), doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2011.05.022
  • Corliss, William R. "A Mammoth Fraud In Science." Science Frontiers. No. 61: Jan-Feb 1989.

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