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12 February 2011
The earliest rock art engraving of an American mammoth?

On a cliff overlooking the floodplain of the San Juan River (Utah, USA), rock art specialists Ekkehart Malotki and Henry Wallace have examined several highly stylized images carved into the rock face including what they believe to be the first example of prehistoric Native American rock art to show a mammoth. While such images are common in the caves of Europe, they are surprisingly unknown in the New World.
     Several other American mammoth images have surfaced in the past two centuries, but until recently all had either disappeared or been shown to be forgeries. Of course, further tests on this recent discovery are needed before a final verdict is reached, so Malotki and Wallace set out to verify it.
     Their first conclusion was that there was no evidence that the engraving was made by modern metal tools, since there were no sharp edges or metal shavings to be seen. The next was that the weathering of the engraved lines and the amount of repatination (changes to the color of an exposed rock surface) were greater than those observed on other nearby carvings from periods of history more recent than the Ice Age, leading them to conclude that this carving really is of very ancient origin.
     Convinced that the image is not a forgery, they then set out to confirm that it also isn't an accident, foundig several key distinguishing marks - a high dome-shaped head, two curved tusks, and a long trunk -  that convinced them the artist truly intended this image to portray a mammoth. They particularly draw attention to a smaller detail, that of two elongated 'fingers' at the end of the trunk. This feature is greatly diminished in living African and Asian elephants, but European cave art shows it as a common and pronounced feature among mammoths of the Ice Age.
     According to the researchers, this can be a hard evidence it's not a crude forgery, since most people do not think 'trunk with a finger and thumb' when thinking of a mammoth. They also added thta most modern forgeries have been stand-alone, single imagesw, while The San Juan River mammoth is just one image on a panel of several engravings, all showing a similar style and comparable weathering. Malotki and Wallace have also now announced the identification of another mammoth in the same panel, to be described officially in a paper later this year.
     In a field plagued with exquisite artifacts that turn out to be hoaxes, there's a chance that this engraving may allow researchers in the region have something new to be looking for when examining rock art.

Edited from NatGeo News Watch (10 February 2011)

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