Florida Mammoth Engraving is Real?

Vero Beach, Florida, mammoth engraving. Source: National Geographic.

I’ve been vaguely aware that in 2009 at Vero Beach (map) near Miami, a sensational find came to light of a bone with a mammoth engraved onto it.  So far there has not been a lot to say about it but now I read that Dennis Stanford at the Smithsonian has inspected it and found no reason to think it is not genuine (yes, that kind of double-negative convoluted opinion).

Anyway, the story is interesting in its own right and perhaps has some lessons for us on the NW Coast as well, which I’ll discuss at more length below.

Does the RBCM know that its styrofoam and yak hair concoction is the go-to image for mammoths, worldwide?

Piecing together the story, it seems that

  • In 2009, a local fossil collector, James Kennedy, “dusted off” a specimen of bone (mammoth, mastodon or sloth) he had had for several years.  He discovered faintly incised lines on it in the form of a mammoth and brought it to the attention of Dr Barbara Purdy at University of Florida
  • According to a respectable blog, (if that ain’t an oxymoron, but afarensis also cites part of the same source), which extensively quotes a now defunct local newspaper story, then the following tests and observations were made in 2009:

The brown, mineral-hardened bone bearing the unique carving is a foot-long fragment from a larger bone that belonged to an extinct “mammoth, mastodon or ground sloth” according to Dr. Richard C. Hulbert, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History museum. These animals have been extinct in Florida for at least 10,000 years.

The bone, currently housed in a vault locally, first went to Barbara Purdy in early April. Even specialists can be fooled, but to her eyes, it looked quite real. “The thing that struck me at the beginning was, unlike forgeries generally, the image is not deep,” Purdy says. “It could easily be missed. It looked naturally worn, the way a coin does that has been handled a great deal, the image beginning to fade.”

Dr. Michael Warren, forensic anthropologist and director of the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory at the University of Florida, has studied the incisions that form the image and the surface of the bone, and has found both to be “ancient.”

In May, Dr. Kevin Jones, the chairperson of the Material Science and Engineering Department at the University of Florida, as well as two other scientists working with him there, also examined the carving.

Using a method called energy dispersive X-Ray spectroscopy and a scanning electron microscope, they were able to study the object in tremendous detail. All three scientists concluded that both the carving and the bone’s surface were the same age, with no evidence of recent tampering.

Around the country and abroad, Purdy sought out experts in Upper Paleolithic art, Late Pleistocene geology, paleontology and Paleoamerican archeology. She asked them to examine photographs and an electron microscope picture of the bone and carved image. None so far has voiced a reason to doubt the object’s authenticity, although tests and examinations continue.

  • National Geographic also covered the story at the time, and I believe funded some further research, though their news report is not as detailed as the above.
  • It was around this time that I stopped following the story.  It’s hard to find a decent article on it, but as noted, a couple of days ago Dennis Stanford, a well-known archaeologist of post-Ice Age North America (albeit a proponent of a questionable theory, more below) has come out in favour of the artifact being genuine:

“We have found no traces that would indicate that a (modern) metal tool was used to carve the bone,” said the institution’s Dennis Stanford, who specializes in early North American archaeology.

“While we see no evidence that it is a forgery” the institution doesn’t authenticate objects unless they are donated to the museum, Stanford wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday.

  • I haven’t seen any radiocarbon dates on the bone itself.  The fact it is on an extinct species and of an extinct species is where, I believe, the estimate of 13,000 years old is coming from.
  • This commenter on the afarensis blog, one Jack Linthicum, has found references in the early 20th century literature on similar finds from Vero Beach.
  • The fossil collector is looking to sell the artifact for more than a million dollars (while the Smithsonian is looking to get it for free – same venality, different modus operandi).

Anyway, a few comments on this find:

1.  While I have no reason to doubt the authenticity based on the above – if it is a forgery it is a very very good one and techniques for detecting such forgeries are hugely more advanced than even 10 years ago – the fact that it is indeed worth a lot of money and did indeed fortuitously get found by a guy looking to retire to Alabama, does give me a bit of a context shiver.

There was some skepticism raised about it at first, and rightly so.  But the skepticism should be directed specifically towards the question of whether or not this artifact is real, and some skepticism about that is completely healthy and should continue. However,  some skeptics mouthed a fair bit of baloney about the cognitive capabilities of early North Americans, or whether they were capable of art.  There seems to be a wide-spread, if declining, narrative in North American archaeology that the first people here were complete blank slates. Archaeologists are challenged to prove they could have had watercraft, for example, when there is ample evidence across the North Pacific for the use of watercraft for more than 35,000 years.  Monte Verde in Chile is challenged because it preserved organic technology, as if that technology did not have tens of thousands of years of history among Homo sapiens in Asia.  And we know the human art tradition goes back well over 50,000 years in Africa, with comparably naturalistic images in Europe going back to over 30,000 years ago.  So let me put this plainly:

The First Peoples of the Americas were fully modern human beings with the full suite of human cognitive abilities, and this would include organic technology, artistic predispositions, music, song, stories and so forth. It is reasonable to take this as an operational definition of the capacities of these people.

Skepticism on this point supposes  a blunt interruption in human history between Old Worlds and New that would not be given any credence in any other context.  Imagine, for example, a similar find in Scandanavia from a similar time period being discounted on the grounds of, “we don’t have any other finds of art  and really who knows if these Fluirdy People could make art”.  There is nothing magical about passing through Beringia that means we have to go back to square one on the archaeology inference board and show everything all over again.

2.  Another point: there is surely something to be learned about this carving from examining comparable carvings from Ice Age Europe – you can download a nice review of this topic by Alpert comparing Vero Beach to Europe here (7 meg PDF).  But the point remains: people were capable of art when they came to North America from Asia.  This find is not in itself evidence for a North Atlantic route of entry into the Americas.  In this respect, it is a bit worrying that Stanford is a principle proponent of that route (the so-called Solutrean hypothesis, which I find to be extremely unlikely, but who knows).

3.  Alpert also nicely reviews the history of alleged and disproven mammoth imagery in the Americas, the baggage of which Vero Beach must carry.  National Geographic also addresses this, especially the discredited Holy Oake Pendant.

4.  Some skeptics have raised the question along the lines of, this is the first! and only! so it must be wrong!  I don’t buy this as an argument style.   First, most sites of a comparable age are kill-butchery sites where art is not the first thing one thinks of.  Second, there are indeed incised plaquettes from other early sites, including Clovis, notably the Gault site in Texas (e.g.).  Third, for any phenomenon, even rare ones, there has to be a first discovery.  The Folsom site was once the first human-megafauna site, XYZ-123 the first quasar, someone found the first Coelacanth, etc.  The question of whether something is real is independent of whether it is common. And in any case, there may be evidence this is not actually first, even from Vero Beach.  This also fits a pattern – after the first accepted discovery of something, a literature review often turns up previously noted examples whose significance was not grasped – this is key in the so-called paradigm shifts in scientific advancement.

Anyway, I think this is an interesting story for any North American archaeologist and perhaps especially so out here, where debates around skepticism of early material are particularly sharp-edged.

Vero Beach amateur fossil collector James Kennedy with part of his collection. Source: Palm Beach Post.

13 responses to “Florida Mammoth Engraving is Real?

  1. This is pretty interesting, and a very nice object.

    I suppose there is one other possible explanation: that the object was found in Europe and somehow has ended up being represented as being found in Florida.

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  2. Wow – just read the comments attached to your “came to light” link above. The comments are really very scary in their profoundly ignorant narrow pugilistic view of the world.

    Also, one of the other links, on re-reading, mentions they are still trying to confirm that the sediments on this object originate in the Vero Beach area, so its provenance is not yet firmly established.

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  3. APM – good points, and if it isn’t from where the pruported finder says it is, then my skepticism meter goes up three notches.
    Also,
    If the bone itself is sloth, then must be from Americas, I think.
    If ancient DNA could be extracted then it could perhaps be placed within American lineages of mammoth or mastodon.
    More likely as a viable research strategy, it may have a stable isotope signature typical of Florida and atypical of Europe – not sure what this would look like specifically, but I would bet there are very clear isotope signals between these continents which the lifetime signature of the animals diet would encapsulate in its bones. (Assumes collagen present,but maybe even bone apatite contains an isotope signal?)

    That wouldn’t address the forgery possibility but would at least show it was, or wasn’t, an American critter.

    Right now, I think the preponderance of evidence suggests if it is a forgery, then it is a very very good forgery.

    Re: the comments – yeah. Why do those people even read a science article? I don’t read the theology column for fun. And I’ve seen one poster’s argument tons of time: basically, the devil put a bunch of dinosaur bones in the ground to tempt humans into false belief, or something. Maybe he put scientists on earth for the same reason.

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  4. A little disappointed that Stanford only thinks metal tools are used in the manufacture of forgeries. It is very hard to use the images to assess what the bone looks like in reality – the photography having been made to emphasis the carving, thereby making it appear much more distinct then the other scratches and streaks present. I’ll vote for forgery.

    Forgers are very adept at making fakes – heck many paintings attributed to Old World Masters have, in recent years, been shown to be the product of their students or forgers several centuries later. Or take the shroud of Turin. Usually these early forgers get caught due to oversights not detectable in their own time (different chemical signatures in pigments, use of materials not available such as paper types, composition of metals, etc). So a very good forger would look first at what kinds of tests are available that might call out their hoax.

    Wear & tear – throw the artifact in the river or beach next to the site for a year or two (or longer or shorter) to simulate natural erosion.

    Sediments in crevices – subject the artifact to an ultrasonic bath first to clear the pores, then throw the artifact in the river or beach next to the site for a year or two to fill those pores up with local clasts.

    Species & age – make sure you use a piece of bone that is about the right age, and preferably from the location itself. Best way to do this without getting a 14C date (and make you suspect) is to choose an extinct species, one that you know doesn’t have a long history of presence in the area (this collector would certainly know his bones … and local geology). Someone using a cow bone wouldn’t get this far. They wouldn’t use a fossil fragment from Russian permafrost for instance, as they would be astute enough to know that a DNA analysis would be undertaken.

    Carving method – why would you use a metal tool ? The forger would try to replicate the original tools.

    Style – again, why make it look European ? If it is a unique style, and it is going to be a unique piece, you don’t want to draw attention to inter-continental similarities. Sure it has to look like a mammoth, but make it ‘yours’ … Alpert points this out well – but I think her conclusion is tongue and cheek, Quentin.

    And I could go on … bottom line is that if you pay attention to what is going on in the sciences, it isn’t very hard to come up with a forgery that will withstand all current/modern tests aimed at the object’s physical parameters. So – why couldn’t it be real is the better question I should focus on.

    I would like to refer back to the etching’s stylistic components, and go beyond Alpert’s dissection. Silly as it may seem, the internet is full of mammoth imagery, old and new, all ready and available for examination and as reference material. But what struck me were the legs, which Alpert touches on in stating “The little mammoth is skillfully depicted in motion with weight on one front leg and with the other leg about to receive the weight.” (page 11). The general absence of limb movement (and poor limb representation) in European parietal art within the examples illustrated by Alpert could be construed as proof that the Floridian paleo-sculptor was, in fact, a better artist then his/her contemporaries. Again, heck look at all the 19th century paintings depicting things in motion – waves, cantering horses, people, boats, trains, waterfalls … objects illustrated without the aid of a photograph, and although artistic license was likely used, the proportions are good, the sense of motion is preserved. BUT … something still niggled at me.

    And it struck me that there might be a reason why the legs are poorly depicted in the European examples – they aren’t necessarily visible when the animal is observed in its natural element (unless your standing over a dead one). If you do an internet search, in the vast majority of photos taken of African elephants you can’t see the legs below the knee due to tall grass, shrubs etc. The only times you see their feet is when they’re standing on a road, or a trail. So I suspect that for the Europeans, the “Keffeffel” effect was occurring – they could draw what makes a mammoth a mammoth (trunk, lack of ears, eyes, fur, hump, tail, tusks, stubby legs and general silhouette) a mammoth from memory, but darned if they could remember what their feet look like … Archaeologists have the same problem – most know what a flake looks like, and can describe it to you, and probably draw a decent representation of the salient details that make a flake diagnostic, but most wouldn’t be able to illustrate a bulb worth a darn.

    But still, maybe this original artist in Florida happened to live in an area suffering drought, and so there was no tall grass or shrubbery. Or he had a mammoth foot fetish.

    Then something else garnered my e-ttention. The shoulder and outline of the top of the front leg on the Florida engraving was very distinct – going way above the tummy, whereas none of the European examples have long lanky legs. Maybe the European mammoths were vertically challenged ? Actually, no, the reason their upper legs aren’t illustrated is because of that mass of hair draped over their bodies – their limbs would be poorly defined under regular light, especially when standing still. Ever seen a muskox ? I bet their legs aren’t 12 inches tall. Time to shave a muskox and verify. But maybe the Floridian mammoths simply weren’t as hirsute as their more northerly and westerly neighbours. It gets darn hot down there, even 13Kya …. loosing the hair as a regional adaptation makes sense (http://chiefio.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/mammoth-meat/ – man that is one ugly mammoth !)

    Still those legs bothered me. Where had I seen running mammoths with well-defined legs …

    http://latemag.com/10000-bc-images

    March 2008. But maybe this collector saw the movie too and went looking through his collection of fossils … just in case.

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  5. I wonder what happened with the Viro Beach excavation where the water treatment plant was planned? Barbara Purdy won’t be making any friends amongst Florida consultants with her statement ” It all needs to be carefully done, not contract archeology, but a painstaking University-type project.”

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  6. Morley – yeah, that’s for sure. I too look forward to the privileges of the emeritus professor though.

    Remi – that’s an interesting comment and 500 blog bragging points to you for bringing in “10,000 BC”, a movie which could have been factored into two principle components: schlock and more schlock, each explaining 50% of the huge enjoyment value.

    bottom line is that if you pay attention to what is going on in the sciences, it isn’t very hard to come up with a forgery that will withstand all current/modern tests aimed at the object’s physical parameters.

    I don’t know that I agree. So far it has withstood scrutiny, including geoscience tests. If it were to have the isotope and/or DNA tests that would be helpful. I agree ruling out steel tools tells us more about Stanford’s imagination than the potential forger’s. I am slightly uneasy about the concordance of million dollar price tag and affirmations from the Euro-origins guy, but I think that a casual forger would not be able to pull this off. Maybe a good idea though to check out Kennedy’s trash (garbage never lies, am i right archaeologists?) and see if there are a series of increasingly plausible looking mammoth scratchy scratches on porkchops. Or maybe he just used a novelty Mammoth-shaped brillo pad when “dusting it off”. Certainly he had access to local raw material, so to speak, which would make it easier for him to fake than for me.

    I like your hairless Florida mammoth idea though: all frost backs take their fur coats off in Florida, and this actually enhances the credibility somewhat I suppose if it reflects living variation not visible in the archaeological or fossil record.

    However, I do think that, hair or not, Upper Palaeolithic artists were keen observers of the natural world as seen in the seemingly effortless way they depict the essence of those animals. This piece may not win any art prizes but I am sure the hunters anywhere were intimately knowledgeable about mammoth feet, or risk being on the short end of one of them.

    (Why did the mammoth paint its toenails to resemble Clovis points? So it could hide at the SAAs. Have you ever seen a mammoth at the SAAs? HA!)

    Anyway, my main point about this issue is not that we shouldn’t have healthy skepticism, but that skepticism be based on the virtues of the object, and not goofy preconceptions about whether Clovis-era people had art, could do art, were interested in art, whatever.

    [just to make an analogy, if you trolled the European literature for zoomorphically-engraved tablets or bones, found at open-air sites, from any random 300 year period of the Upper Palaeolithic – that is a comparable region, slice of time, and site type as Clovis – my guess is you would come up with zero specimens a lot more than even one specimen.]

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  7. There seems to be this inane desire to find a depiction of mammoths/mastodons – that archaeology in NA won’t be complete until someone finds their likeness illustrated somewhere. There is a distinct possibility that there wasn’t a fascination with these beasts 13kya, and consequently art was focused on other things – the bone appears to support some other designs, but these aren’t mentioned. I guess I’m skeptical not just for the context of the find, but that the ultimate member of the Clovis/pre-clovis animal menagerie (in our eyes) just happens to be the first artistic depiction of an animal from that period (well that might not be true actually, in hindsight – I don’t know). What is worth more on the open market – an engraving of a mammoth or STT, or that of a turtle, sloth, or other ‘banale’ creature ?

    I don’t doubt that the bone is local. I don’t doubt that there were creative folks 13kya. And I don’t doubt that those creative talents have yet to be properly documented. I suspect they’ve actually been overlooked in existing collections. BUT … something just doesn’t sit right about this particular find given the context, potential for intent, and ease with which a reasonable forgery could be fabricated. Time will tell if similar objets d’art are buried at Vero Beach, but my bet is that this will be a stylistically unique piece in the end.

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  8. I doubt the giant sloth was ever banal, but point taken about mammothopiea-and turtles and tortoises are, in fact, the single most ubiquitous taxonomy at Clovis sites. Slow Game Hunters!

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  9. Hmm, I see the original Vero Beach local newspaper story is back online, or at least, I found its proper URL. It’s notable for maybe the only use of the word “asymptotically ” in a community newspaper I have ever seen, as well as being still the main/only source for some of the detailed study described above, and more (it is worth a read, suggest the jpeg below):

    http://www.verobeach32963.com/STORIES%202009/JUNE/vb63_bonefind_issue21_2009.html

    archived here for posterity (large jpeg):

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  10. I see that the researchers have a paper accepted in the frontline peer-reviewed Journal of Archaeological Science. There is no radiocarbon date, but they make a convincing date that the mineralization and taphonomy of the incisions happened along the same time-line as the bone itself; and that the bone is from the Vero beach deposits. That is, it is not an imported specimen, nor is it a recent forgery. By comparison to the known pattern of extinction of megafauna (the bone is either proboscidean or sloth) then none and incision are inferred to be at least 13,000 calendar years old.

    The authors then make some vague hand-waves at the notion the style is similar to earlier European examples but there is not really a formal analysis and I would consider the source a little on that – the Atlantic route into the Americas is really not well supported though these days I wouldn’t rule anything out.

    Anyway, as I said in the post, this is an exciting find but should not really be considered a controversial or earth-shaking one since obviously palaeoindians were anatomically fully modern humans with all that implies.

    News article here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/9713337

    REFERENCE:

    Purdy, B.A., Jones, K.S., Mecholsky, J.J., Bourne, G., Hulbert, R.C.,
    MacFadden, B.J., Church, K.L., Warren, M.W., Jorstad, T.F., Stanford, D.J., Wachowiak, M.J., Speakman, R.J.

    Earliest Art in the Americas: Incised Image of a Proboscidean on a Mineralized Extinct Animal Bone from Vero Beach, Florida, Journal of Archaeological Science (2011),
    doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2011.05.022

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  11. The Real Story of Vero Beach Wasn’t Ancient Mammoth Art but Rather; Ancient Mammoth Humans and Mammoth Archaeological Misdirection

    There could be no better metaphor for modern science, particularly archaeology than Dr. Zaius from the movie “Planet of the Apes”.

    When that Minister of Science found the talking human doll in a cave which would have overturned his scientific paradigm he had the cave sealed and the eyewitnesses arrested.

    This week, the Huffington Post published a story about ancient mammoth art discovered at Vero Beach Florida which managed to both bury the lead and to seal the real archeological experience of North America in a cave, metaphorically speaking.

    The original article announcing this discovery was published in 2009 so it’s a bit of a mystery why this article is being published now. (We had our own article last year). However, here is an offensive quote from the article:

    “While prehistoric art depicting animals with trunks has been found in Europe, this may be the first in the Western Hemisphere, researchers report Wednesday in the Journal of Archaeological Science”http://s8int.com/WordPress/?p=2905

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  12. Sounds like there is a new project underfoot at Vero Beach which might sort some of this stuff out:

    http://www.examiner.com/article/archaeologists-to-excavate-ice-age-site-florida-with-early-human-remains

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