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Ice Age Art Found In Florida Depicts Ancient Mammoth

June 23, 2011

Researchers have discovered a bone fragment in Florida at least 13,000 years old with the incised image of a mammoth or mastodon, in what may be the first example of Ice Age art found in the Americas, scientists said on Wednesday.

The artifact is the oldest and only known example of Ice Age art depicting a proboscidean (the order of animals with trunks) in the Western Hemisphere, the researchers said.

Fossil hunter James Kennedy discovered the bone in Vero Beach, Florida, and noticed the engraving while cleaning it.

Recognizing its potential importance, Kennedy contacted scientists at the University of Florida and the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute and National Museum of Natural History.

“This is an incredibly exciting discovery,” said Dennis Stanford, anthropologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and co-author of the study.

“There are hundreds of depictions of proboscideans on cave walls and carved into bones in Europe, but none from America””until now.”

“The results of this investigation are an excellent example of the value of interdisciplinary research and cooperation among scientists,” said Barbara Purdy, professor emerita of anthropology at the University of Florida and lead author of the team’s research.

“There was considerable skepticism expressed about the authenticity of the incising on the bone until it was examined exhaustively by archaeologists, paleontologists, forensic anthropologists, materials science engineers and artists.”

One of the researchers’ main goals was to study the timing of the engraving to determine whether it was made thousands of years ago or more recently, as an imitation of earlier, prehistoric art.

The bone was originally discovered near a location, known as the Old Vero Site, where human bones were found side-by-side with the bones of extinct Ice Age animals in an excavation from 1913 to 1916.

The researchers examined the elemental composition of the engraved bone and others from the site using optical and electron microscopy, which revealed no discontinuity in coloration between the carved grooves and the surrounding material.

This indicated that both surfaces had aged simultaneously.  Furthermore, the edges of the carving were worn and showed no signs of having been carved recently, or that the grooves were made with metal tools.

These factors led the researchers to believe the art is genuine, and that is serves as evidence that people living in the Americas during the last Ice Age created artistic images of the animals they hunted.

The engraving is at least 13,000 years old, the researchers concluded, as this is the date for the last appearance of these animals in eastern North America.  More recent Pre-Columbian people would not have seen a mammoth or mastodon to draw.

The study further validates the findings of geologist Elias Howard Sellards at the Old Vero Site in the early 20th Century.  His claims that people were in North America and hunted animals at Vero Beach during the last Ice Age have been debated over the past 95 years.

A cast of the carved fossil bone is now part of an exhibit of Florida Mammoth and Mastodons at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

The research is published online June 12 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Image 1: The engraving, approximately 13,000 years old, is 3 inches long from the top of the head to the tip of the tail, and 1.75 inches tall from the top of the head to the bottom of the right foreleg. Credit: Chip Clark/Smithsonian

Image 2: This fragmented fossil bone found in Vero Beach, Fla. is the oldest and only known example of Ice Age art to depict a proboscidean in the Americas. Credit: Chip Clark/Smithsonian

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Ice Age Art Found In Florida Depicts Ancient Mammoth