Bone may display oldest art in Americas

Mammoth engraved on fossil may date from at least 13,000 year ago

An engraving of an Ice Age mammoth on a fossil bone possibly represents the oldest drawing in the Americas. Mammoths disappeared from eastern North America 13,000 years ago, so the etching must be at least that old, says a team led by anthropologist Robert Speakman of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute in Suitland, Md. Replacement of the original bone by minerals prevents DNA extraction or radiocarbon dating, the scientists explain in a paper published online June 12 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Chip Clark, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

An engraving of an Ice Age mammoth on a fossil bone possibly represents the oldest drawing in the Americas. Chip Clark, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Chemical and microscopic analyses conducted by Speakman’s team indicate that both the bone and the mammoth etching are ancient. Anatomical details of the drawing match those of ancient mammoths, including a high-domed head and long forelimbs. The bone itself, which comes from a mammoth, mastodon or giant sloth, was found by an amateur fossil hunter near Vero Beach, Fla., not far from where remains of people and extinct animals (including mammoths) were unearthed a century ago.

Speakman’s team does a “reasonable job” of showing that the engraving is not a forgery, says archaeologist David Meltzer of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. But the find can’t be dubbed the oldest art in the Americas without radiocarbon or other direct dating evidence, Meltzer says. Radiocarbon measures indicate that stones engraved with cross-hatched lines and other abstract patterns, previously found at two Texas sites, date to about 11,500 years ago.
Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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