Earliest American Art: Mammoth on Mammoth

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This sketch of a mammoth inscribed on mammoth bone may be the oldest known American art.
Chip Clark, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

THE GIST

- The oldest known artwork from the Americas depicting an animal shows a mammoth engraved on mammoth bone.

- Based on many scientific tests, researchers believe the engraving dates from 13,000 to 20,000 years ago.

- The object, found in Florida, strengthens the controversial theory that Europeans were the first inhabitants of the Americas.

The first known depiction of an animal from the Americas is an image of a mammoth engraved on a mammoth bone, suggests a paper accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Researchers believe the object, found in Florida, dates to at least 13,000 years ago when most large Pleistocene animals went extinct in the eastern United States. The artifact may even be up to 20,000 years old.

"The engraving was done by a group of people that we would refer to as Paleoindian or Paleoamericans," co-author Jeff Speakman, head of technical studies at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, told Discovery News. The word "Paleoamerican" does not necessarily point to a cultural group, he added, but instead is a "general term that refers to the earliest inhabitants of the Americas."

The animal engraving has made headlines since fossil hunter James Kennedy first collected it from a location in North Vero Beach sometime in 2006 or 2007. In February of 2009, Kennedy discovered the engraving while cleaning the incised bone.

To determine the piece's authenticity, Speakman and his colleagues recently put it through a barrage of scientific tests. Scanning electron microscopy, forensic analysis, high powered X-rays and other tests all suggest the mammoth engraving is not a forgery.

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Compared to the rough crosshatched, checkered lines associated with Paleoindian art from early sites such as Gault in Texas, this animal image from Florida looks quite sophisticated. Speakman, however, points out that 120,000-year-old decorative ornaments have been found in Africa and the Near East. Venus figurines date to at least 35,000 years ago, and paint materials in the human archaeological record could date to more than 300,000 years ago.

Twenty thousand years ago is therefore a drop in the proverbial art bucket from a global perspective, but it is extremely old for the Americas. The researchers indicate the object may strengthen the controversial theory that people associated with the Solutrean culture of Europe migrated to North America via the North Atlantic Ice Sheet.

In other words, some of America's first inhabitants could have been Europeans that settled in what is now Florida and at other locations.

"The hypothesis rests upon similarities between Solutrean and Clovis tool technologies that have no known counterparts in Eastern Asia, Siberia, or Beringia -- areas that early people are known to have migrated through," Speakman explained.

Two of the strongest arguments against this "Solutrean hypothesis" have been a lack of art and other archaeological finds from the proposed period in North America. The mammoth engraving could address the art issue. As to the second argument, Speakman said that over the past decade, "numerous archaeological sites in the eastern U.S. have been identified" dating to 20,000 plus years ago, possibly even pre-dating the Clovis culture.

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In terms of the engraving's subject, "Mammoths, mastodons and dozens of other now extinct species were present and plentiful in Florida 13,000 years ago," he said. "Certainly these animals were hunted by Paleoindians. People tend to focus on the significance of the larger mammals, but that's kind of what preserves best, other than stone tools, in many parts of North America."

Bruce Bradley, an associate professor of experimental archaeology at the University of Exeter, told Discovery News that he believes the new paper "makes a compelling case for the authenticity of the engraving."

"As to who and when the bone was inscribed," Bradley continued, "the only issue is really whether it was done on fresh or mineralized bone. Since there is no means of directly dating the bone, the probability is that it is at least as old as the extinction of the animal species it came from."

Bradley agrees that the image likely "would have been made by Clovis contemporaries or earlier."

In the future, a full excavation of the North Vero Beach site could be possible, allowing researchers to learn more about what could be the first human inhabitants of the Americas.

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