7 June 2009
13,000-year-old carved bone discovered in Florida
Local amateur fossil collector James Kennedy appears to have made an unprecedented archaeological discovery that might help confirm a human presence in Treasure Coast (Florida, USA) up to 13,000 years ago. A 15-inch-long prehistoric bone fragment found near Vero Beach contains a crude engraving of a mammoth or mastodon on it, said Dr. Barbara Purdy, professor emerita of anthropology at the University of Florida. "It is humbling to realize that we are seeing what the hunter saw more than 13,000 years ago," Purdy said. Tests so far have shown it to be genuine. If so, it appears to be 'the oldest, most spectacular and rare work of art in the Americas,' she wrote in a report to other scientists.
Kennedy found the brown and tan bone two years ago and put it under his sink. About two months ago, he took it out for cleaning and spotted unusual lines, so he took it to the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville for examination. The four-inch etching of the elephant appears faintly but clearly on the surface of a fossil bone. The image, small yet showing the perspective of one rear leg in front of the other, a dangling trunk and a hint of a squinting eye, was apparently made by a prehistoric resident of south central Florida. When Kennedy learned it was so historically valuable, he said, "It blew me away. I was absolutely baffled." The etched bone is being kept in a vault. The site where it was found isn't being disclosed. "There could be so much more out there" from early people in Florida, he said.
The incised bone was picked up near where other collectors in 1915 apparently found ancient human bones near the bones of extinct animals - a find that launched a national scientific debate that hasn't been settled. That site is near the Indian River County Administration Building. This month, a Florida State University archaeologist is leading a team that is taking soil samples from the site at the administration building. That is in preparation for a scientific excavation there next year to help try to settle whether or not humans co-existed here with mammoths and other extinct species.
"The incising would have to be at least 13,000 years old because that is when the animals became extinct and more recent people would not have seen an elephant to etch," Purdy wrote in her report about the find. The etching is on bone from either a mammoth, mastodon or giant sloth. Extensive tests over the past two months have shown that the image was created when the bone was fresh, presumably right after the animal it belonged to was killed or died. Scientific experts she sent the report to all "expressed great excitement about the discovery of the unique specimen, but all of them, naturally, cautioned that its authenticity should be documented." So she had University of Florida scientists run tests that showed that the three-inch-long image wasn't recently made. Those tests and some subjective factors "cause me to conclude that this object is not a fake," Purdy said.
Archaeologists across the nation are excited by the discovery. "There is nothing else like it," a piece of art dating to around the end of the last Ice Age in the New World, said Steven Holen, curator of paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. "It is one of the most spectacular finds in American archaeology in recent history." Dr. Paul G. Bahn, an archaeologist with a doctoral degree from the University of Cambridge, is a specialist in prehistoric art; he led the team that discovered the first Ice Age cave art in Britain in 2003 and 2004. His reaction shows the requisite scientific skepticism of finds as rare as this, and at the same time, his optimism that an amazing discovery has indeed been made in Vero Beach. "When you see something like this, your first thought is that it must be a fake. But there has to be a first time, and this might be it."
Purdy would like to see a new, more complete excavation of the old Vero site that has continued to yield fossil animal bones and human artifacts like spear points. She calls for a new "well-designed project incorporating the expertise of individuals from various disciplines using 21st century techniques." She estimates a thorough scientifically executed excavation would cost around $150,000.
Source: Vero Beach (4 June 2009), TC Palm (5 June 2009)