The discovery of a fossilized large-mammal bone engraved with the image of an elephant-like creature isn’t always that surprising. When the discovery is made in Florida, however, the interest-quotient goes through the roof. While Ice Age depictions of large animals are common in parts of Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia, this is not the case in North or South America.
Throughout the past hundred-plus years in fact, most examples have either been shown to have been fakes, or have disappeared from the record.
This is why interest was so high in 2009 when the Vero Beach Mammoth engraving was announced to the world.
Found among a box of fossils he’d collected over several years, James Kennedy recognized one bone that stood out for having an engraving of a giant elephant-like animal on it. Barbara Purdy of the University of Florida was called in to examine and try to authenticate it, and found the evidence for its authenticity convincing (read the archived story from National Geographic News: PHOTO: Oldest Art in Americas Found on Mammoth Bone? and Purdy et al’s paper).
Though one big question remains and will be discussed later in this post, the piece is now widely viewed as authentic, and so it’s a good time to start thinking more about what it has to tell us about human history and life in the region some 11,000 years ago.
The image of what appears to be a mammoth was discovered on a bone found in Vero Beach, Florida. The white box is approximately 3 inches wide. Florida Museum Photo by Mary Warrick.
First off, the low back, high shoulder and domed head indicate that the animal depicted is in fact a mammoth, not a modern elephant or prehistoric mastodon. “But wait,” you might be saying. “Mammoths are woolly–by definition. It can’t be a mammoth.”
While most people are familiar only with the giant woolly mammoths of Eurasia, there were in fact many different species of pachyderm at the time, of different body type, tusk size, and hairiness, filling different niches in different ecological regions around the globe (read more about elephant evolution).
The Vero Beach Mammoth appears to be a Columbian mammoth, a giant of the warmer southern region of North America well known from the fossil record, which would have had much less need for the insulating hair of its Eurasian cousins, a detail which is nicely illustrated in this engraving.
A National Geographic illustration of a mammoth (foreground) and a mastodon. Note the differences in size, head shape, and posture.
Secondly, the image’s basic outline and subject matter bear a striking resemblance to the well-known art of prehistoric Europe. On one hand this may inspire theories of transatlantic travel by Ice Age East-Coasters and Europeans, for we know from the peopling of Australia that humans had sea-faring craft tens of thousands of years ago. The stormy North Atlantic is a far cry from the South Pacific though, and such journeys would have been considerably more difficult, and theoretically less likely to have occurred.
Whether or not transatlantic travel was possible though, it was certainly not necessary for there to be artistic similarities on both of its shores.
Bronze Age European mummies found in the Taklimakan desert of China testify to the wide ranging travels and cultural influence of humans long before modern times (learn more from “China’s Secret Mummies” on National Geographic Channel). It is probable that even during the Stone Age, travel and trade connected the artistic traditions of Europe and Asia, all the way to the far east of Siberia, and that this cultural connection was part of what the first travelers brought to the New World.
The remains of an ancient tattooed European man found near the Taklimakan Desert in China, as seen in “China’s Secret Mummies” on the National Geographic Channel.
The deep antiquity of the artistic tradition in Europe lends some support to this idea. While Europeans were making images similar to the Vero Beach mammoth at the same time as the Florida artifact was presumably made, some 10-15,000 years ago, they were also doing so as much as 40,000 years ago at Chauvet cave, long before most evidence points to the major human migrations to the Americas.
What we’ve found so far is just a small portion of what has survived, and what has survived is just a tiny portion of what was made.
Additionally, while the images painted and engraved in the caves of Western Europe are often the best known examples of Ice Age art, images on bone and antler from Europe and Asia illustrate that people of all periods decorated items of all sizes and materials.
What we’ve found so far is just a small portion of what has survived, and what has survived is just a tiny portion of what was made. While today we see two mountain peaks of art, separated by deserts of lack of similar artifacts, at the time, they were possibly connected by a vast continuous landscape of art and decoration traditions.
Barbara Olins Alpert has also pointed out that similarity does not need to indicate connection at all (read her full report). There are already several well-documented artifacts of Ice Age Europe that appear to be of uniquely fine execution and of particular artistic vision, and physically realistic styles have popped up at different times and places throughout history (discover a spectacular giraffe carving from the Sahara). The Vero Beach Mammoth could simply be the work of a creative individual working outside of his or her own tradition.
Why the Pros Are Convinced
Over the past year and a half, much work has been done to try to authenticate this remarkable piece, and all who have examined it scientifically agree: they have found no evidence of either the bone or the engraving having been made recently or of the artifact originating in any area other than that in which it is said to have been found. This includes Barbara Purdy and her colleagues from the University of Florida (again, get more details in the original NG News coverage), as well as Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution.
In these images from the University of Florida researchers’ paper, an electron microscope reveals details invisible to the naked eye. Image a shows an incised region of the tusk. Image b shows the same image with backscattered contrast, revealing that inside and outside the incision, the surface of the bone appears the same. Image c shows a new incision made by the researchers, and d shows that same image with backscattering. Here, microscopic debris from the incising is visible, and the lack of black specks seen inside the incision in d indicate that the scratch has in fact cut through the surface weathering visible on the rest of the bone.
The Smithsonian however, will not officially authenticate any artifact not in its own collection. Similarly, peer-reviewed scientific journals will not review or publish work based on items being offered at auction, and that is currently the status for the work of Purdy et al. While the owner, James Kennedy, may simply and understandably want to take advantage of the great financial boon an auction would yield to him, his decision could rob the artifact of achieving its potential to be the first confirmed ancient depiction of an animal in the Americas.
There is still one big question remaining: “When was it engraved?”
The Other Possibility
That is because there is still one big question remaining: “When was it engraved?” Based on the accuracy of the depiction, some say it must have been made more than 11,000 years ago, when Florida mammoths were around to be seen. There is still a possibility though that a modern well educated forger could have engraved a prehistoric bone from the area, worn it down and re-buried it, allowed natural weathering to occur for decades and then brought it back out.
Kevin Jones of the University of Florida’s SWAMP Center has wrestled with this question, and thinks that cutting-edge atomic mass spectrometry dating known as SHRIMP (sensitive high resolution ion microprobe) being done in Australia could give an accurate date for the image being made, but he does not anticipate getting access to analyze the piece again anytime soon.
Tip of the Ice Age Iceberg?
Regardless of what happens to this particular piece though, the Vero Beach area could still revolutionize our understanding of the early culture of the Americas. Despite the large number of human and animal fossils found during canal construction in the early 1900s, no systematic modern excavations have occurred at the site.
Now, earth that was dug up for the canal and sitting in piles ever since will be brought to a local high school where students will sift the material through traditional 1/8, l/4, and l/2 inch screens, providing a richer, more complete picture of the remains. Any interesting finds could help inspire new excavations altogether, using the latest 21st-century techniques, which is Barbara Purdy’s biggest hope for it.
If the existing mammoth engraving is indeed authentic, there is a good chance that more like it could be found in the area. That would be perhaps the greatest test of this bone, and the greatest impact it could have: to inspire more education and research, to open people’s eyes to new possibilities, and to reveal a cultural tradition lost for over 10,000 years.
Rediscover the best preserved mammoth ever found:
More prehistoric art blog posts: