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21 August 2011
Prehistoric petroglyphs of mammoths found in Utah

Rock art specialists Ekkehart Malotki and Henry Wallace report the discovery of portrayals of mammoths and a possible bison at the Upper Sand Island rock art site along the San Juan River in southeastern Utah (USA), most likely dating between 13,000 and 11,000 BP (before present). Until now, no unambiguously ancient rock art imagery of Ice Age megafauna has been found in North America.
     The now generally accepted notion is that there were multiple waves of immigrants prior to Clovis (circa 13,500 BP). Icons of the Ice Age, mammoths were extinct at the latest by 10,800 BP. However, most ancient recognisable and datable art in the American West is almost exclusively non-iconic, with a overwhelming bias for abstract-geometric motifs.
     The Upper Sand Island rock art site extends intermittently for several hundred metres along the vertical Navajo Sandstone cliffs bordering the flood-plain of the San Juan River. Consisting exclusively of petroglyphs, the site was first recorded in 1985. With the exception of a brief paper, none of the different rock art styles, occurring in multiple clusters at the site, have been described. The image of one supposed mammoth was known to some archaeologists and rock art enthusiasts, but because of its difficult access - on a vertical cliff face several metres above ground level - it was never scientifically investigated and its authenticity remained in question.
     The lines of the mammoth and bison images are both pecked and ground. Some portions of the design follow natural microscopic fissures in the cliff face. That the artist chose this location, and drew the most diagnostic portions of the creature following a natural feature of the rock, demonstrates that the artist saw the likeness of the mammoth in the rock prior to making the image.
     Closely associated with the mammoth is a much larger image that suggests a bison, which partially overlaps the dorsal ridge of the underlying mammoth. Their placement some 5m above the remnants of an ancient gravel bar, which in turn rises an additional 7 to 8m above the current floodplain, betrays the panel's deep antiquity. At the time of its manufacture, the artist's access to the rock face must have been facilitated by a considerably higher ground level.
     The mammoth's dome-shaped head is marked by a solidly pecked top-knot. The two tusks, neatly aligned in parallel fashion, are relatively short. The overlong trunk is shown in profile. Exaggerated rendering of certain diagnostic animal parts is a common practice in rock art iconography, and is frequently seen in the region.
     A second mammoth portrayal on the panel has the distinctive dome-shaped head and small tusks and trunk, although much of the rest of the body is either weathered away or was never clearly pecked.
     The authentication of two petroglyph depictions of mammoths along Utah's San Juan River clearly confirms the consensus of Late Pleistocene researchers that Paleo-american humans lived side by side with now-extinct megafauna in the fossil- and archaeologically-rich region of south-eastern Utah.
     The discovery of a realistic mammoth portrayal on a mineralised extinct animal bone fragment at Vero Beach, Florida (USA) - first announced in the media in 2009 and now scientifically verified as authentic - can be seen as a truly sensational piece of pictorial evidence for the co-existence of Palaeo-americans with Ice Age megafauna.

Edited from Rock Art Research, 2011 - Volume 28, Number 2

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