Scientists reveal a first in Ice Age art

June 21, 2011
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

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
Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Florida have announced the discovery of a bone fragment, approximately 13,000 years old, in Florida with an incised image of a mammoth or mastodon. This engraving is the oldest and only known example of Ice Age art to depict a proboscidean (the order of animals with trunks) in the Americas. The team's research is published online in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The bone was discovered in Vero Beach, Fla. by James Kennedy, an avocational , who collected the bone and later while cleaning the bone, discovered the engraving. 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, at the Smithsonian's and co-author of this research. "There are hundreds of depictions of proboscideans on cave walls and carved into bones in Europe, but none from America—until now."

The engraving 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. The fossil bone is a fragment from a long bone of a large mammal—most likely either a mammoth or mastodon, or less likely a giant sloth. A precise identification was not possible because of the bone's fragmented condition and lack of diagnostic features.

"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 main goals for the research team was to investigate the timing of the engraving—was it ancient or was it recently engraved to mimic an example of prehistoric art? It was originally found 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 team examined the elemental composition of the engraved bone and others from the Old Vero Site. They also used optical and electron microscopy, which showed no discontinuity in coloration between the carved grooves and the surrounding material. This indicated that both surfaces aged simultaneously and that the edges of the carving were worn and showed no signs of being carved recently or that the grooves were made with metal tools.

Believed to be genuine, this rare specimen provides 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 as this is the date for the last appearance of these animals in eastern North America, and more recent Pre-Columbian people would not have seen a mammoth or mastodon to draw.

The team's research also 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 have been disputed over the past 95 years.

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

Explore further: Another mastodon bone found in Michigan

Related Stories

Researcher IDs Ice Age sloth bone in Colorado

November 7, 2010

(AP) -- Scientists excavating an Ice Age ecosystem in the resort town of Snowmass Village say they have found the first Jefferson's ground sloth ever discovered in Colorado.

Recommended for you

From a very old skeleton, new insights on ancient migrations

October 9, 2015

Three years ago, a group of researchers found a cave in Ethiopia with a secret: it held the 4,500-year-old remains of a man, with his head resting on a rock pillow, his hands folded under his face, and stone flake tools surrounding ...

Mexican site yields new details of sacrifice of Spaniards

October 9, 2015

It was one of the worst defeats in one of history's most dramatic conquests: Only a year after Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico, hundreds of people in a Spanish-led convey were captured, sacrificed and apparently eaten.

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...

Who you gonna trust? How power affects our faith in others

October 6, 2015

One of the ongoing themes of the current presidential campaign is that Americans are becoming increasingly distrustful of those who walk the corridors of power – Exhibit A being the Republican presidential primary, in which ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (3) Jun 21, 2011
New rule: clicking on "enlarge" actually has to significantly increase the image size. What's the point physorg?
not rated yet Jun 21, 2011
Physorg is an aggregate. The article and photograph are from the Smithsonian, as clearly credited in the article. Talk to them, Nikola.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 21, 2011
Still, an enlargement for a better look at detail would have been nice.

If it is, in fact, a depiction of a Mammoth/Mastodon/Giant Sloth, then it is a masterful rendering, and would probably pass muster with the Fine Art crowd, even today.

Unfortunately, we can't be certain that it doesn't actually depict some tentacle-headed monstrosity from the Age of Cthulhu.

Almost creepy...

not rated yet Jun 21, 2011
In a pinch...
1. Right-click the Enlarged image
2. Choose "View Image"
3. Hold down Ctrl, then press the " " (plus) key to zoom the image.
not rated yet Jun 21, 2011
In a pinch...
1. Right-click the Enlarged image
2. Choose "View Image"
3. Hold down Ctrl, then press the " " (plus) key to zoom the image.

@Fish Kungfu,


Thanks for trying, though.

not rated yet Jun 22, 2011
Very funny. I mean this is a joke right? Anyone ever heard of Dr. Hilborne Cresson? No? Google him and his mammoth etching on a piece of shell. Apparently mammoths did not have feet as Cressons did not show any either. Dennis Stanford has given his blessing on this? I guess I am not surprised. I suppose he thinks one of his Soultrean Paleo-Americans carved it. LMAO!!!!
Jun 22, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
3 / 5 (2) Jun 22, 2011
13,000 years and I still can't draw an elephant that well... Damn...
not rated yet Jun 27, 2011
Cresson's shell was a fraud.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.