Friday, July 08, 2011


Forensic tests confirm the age of an etched Ice Age bone. The 13,000-year-old mammoth bone inscribed with an image of a mammoth is the real deal.

The carved bone, which depicts a walking mammoth, was found near Vero Beach in east-central Florida in 2006 or 2007. Since its discovery, scientists have been working to determine the authenticity of the 13,000-year-old artifact. Now, several experiments reveal the etching is indeed ancient, scientists reported recently in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Since the carving does not really look like any of the mammoth incising and cave art that come from Europe, "it could be the people were here doing their own art, and may have had a memory of art in the Old World," speculated study leader Barbara Purdy, a professor emerita at the University of Florida.

When preliminary forensic tests on the bone began in 2009, Purdy "literally went on the assumption that [the carving] was a fake," she told National Geographic News at the time. But these tests, and further analysis by the Smithsonian team, convinced Purdy that the etching was real.

The team compared elements in the engraved bones with others from the site, which once hosted giant beasts and nomadic bands of Ice Age hunters.

The scientists also observed the etching via optical and electron microscopy, which revealed "no discontinuity in coloration between the carved grooves and the surrounding material," according to a statement. This suggests that both surfaces aged at the same time, and that the grooves were not made more recently with metal tools.

Scientists also determined the 15-inch-long (38-centimeter-long) bone fragment had belonged to one of three animals: a mammoth, a mastodon, or a giant sloth—all of which died out in the region at the end of the last ice age, between about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago.

In 2009, discoverer and local fossil hunter James Kennedy noticed the image only after dusting off the bone, which had sat under his sink for a few years. Purdy, the anthropologist, said, "This is the first glimpse of real art in the Western Hemisphere, and I think that's our starting point for something that might be found in the future if we start looking closely at these old bones." She said she hopes that the bone—now locked in a safety deposit box with an uncertain fate—will end up in a museum.

For now, art and anthropology buffs can see a cast of the carved bone, now part of an exhibit at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.


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