June 10, 2009—The Americas' oldest known artist may have been an Ice Age hunter in what is now Florida, according to an anthropologist who has examined a 13,000-year-old bone etching.
The carved bone, which depicts a walking mammoth (detail of the bone at top), was found near Vero Beach in east-central Florida. (See a map of the region.)
The now exclusive area once hosted giant beasts and nomadic bands of Ice Age hunters, said Barbara Purdy, a professor emerita at the University of Florida.
"I literally went on the assumption that [the carving] was a fake," said Purdy, who was later convinced of its authenticity after the bone had passed a barrage of tests by University of Florida forensic scientists.
The examinations revealed that the light etching is not recent, and that it was made a short time after the animal died, according to Purdy.
Scientists also determined the 15-inch-long (38-centimeter-long) bone fragment (pictured in full at bottom) belonged to one of three animals: a mammoth, a mastodon, or a giant sloth—all of which died out at the end of the last ice age, between about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago.
(Read National Geographic magazine editor Chris Sloan's take on the newfound mammoth art: "Mammoth Art in America, or Mammoth Fraud?")
Discoverer and local fossil hunter James Kennedy only recently noticed the image after dusting off the bone, which had sat under his sink for a few years.
"I had no idea it was this big of a fuss. [When I heard] there was nothing else like it in the Western Hemisphere, that's when my heart kind of stopped."
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."
John Gifford, an underwater archaeologist at the University of Miami, has studied Ice Age peoples in Florida.
Gifford has not examined the newfound artifact, "so the only comment I can make is that I am very, very skeptical and look forward to reading the first article about this discovery in a journal [that has been reviewed by several scientists]," he said by email.
But it is "certainly possible" that such an artwork could be found, added Gifford, who has received funding from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society.)
Kennedy, the artwork's owner, said he's undecided whether to sell the bone or donate it to the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.
But the University of Florida's Purdy said she hopes that the bone will end up in a museum.
"This goes beyond me and him," she said. "It belongs to the world."
(Related: "Climate Change, Then Humans, Drove Mammoths Extinct.")