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.
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.