About 5 years ago James Kennedy, an amateur fossil collector, found a nondescript scrap of bone near Vero Beach, Florida. It seemed so ordinary he went home and promptly stuck it in a box under his sink. But a few months later he took it out of the box, cleaned it, and discovered it was not nondescript at all–there was an engraving of a mammoth on it. Paleolithic art on portable objects such as bone, antler, and rock are common in Europe but before this discovery unknown in North America.
Up close view of the mammoth engraving. The domed forehead indicates it depicts a mammoth, not a mastodon. The fossil is mineralized and has no DNA left for species identification. The whole scrap of bone is just 16 inches long. The engraving itself is about 4 inches wide.
This fossil is an incredible and rare find from a site that has produced a bounty of other wonderful fossils and artifacts, including human remains probably dating to about 14,000 calender years BP. Of course the first thought to cross the minds of scientists when they initially saw the specimen was the possibility that it might be fake. But there are several ingenius scientific techniques that can detect whether the artifact is a fraud or not. By analyzing the ratio of rare earth elements found in the specimen (a method I’ve discussed on a couple of previous blog entries including http://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/08/28/the-fossil-rich-region-of-tunica-hills-louisiana/) they determined the fossil dates to the Pleistocene and did come from the Vero Beach site. After examination of the specimen under a microscope, scientists concluded the engraving showed the same amount of weathering as the rest of the bone. A fresh engraving would look much clearer than the rest of the bone. Scientists made a fresh incision on this bone, then used a scanning electron microscope to compare the fresh cuts with the older engraved cuts. The fresh cuts had a “debris field” (microscopic dust) whereas the engraved one didn’t, suggesting an older debris field eroded away. Also, it looks as if the mineralization of the bone occurred across the engraving. Scientists conducted 2 additional tests to determine if the engraving was authentic. Energy dispersion x-ray spectroscopy can detect whether the specimen was cut, then applied with a substance that made it look mineralized. No substance they could detect was used. Finally, they made a cast and mold of the fossil and subjected it to reflection transformation imagery (http://vcg.isti.cnr.it/Publications/2006/DCCS06/). This helped them determine the engraving wasn’t made recently.
James Kennedy with what looks like a bunch of fossils.
I’m convinced it’s authentic. From examining Mr. Kennedy’s dwelling (his home?) in the above photograph, he appears to be a working class kind of guy and unlikely to be harboring a method that can fool modern forensic scientific techniques.
According to a Mammoth Trumpet article, the Vero Beach mammoth engraving is being auctioned. If a museum doesn’t place the highest bid, this specimen could be lost to science.
The whole scrap of bone with the engraving on it. Geometric designs extended past the broken end. The size of the bone narrows it down to either mammoth, mastodon, or giant sloth. Not enough is left for scientists to determine which it was. But without a doubt the engraving depicts a mammoth. Mammoths had domed forehead, mastodons didn’t. If I had to make a bet, I’d gamble the bone is from a mammoth because it’s likely the paleo-indian who engraved it was drawing the animal it was from.
Vero Man was NOT a 12 Foot Tall Giant
While researching the topic of this blog entry, I came across a creationist blogger who claimed the scientists who originally examined the fossils from the Vero Beach excavation found bones of 12 foot tall men. Supposedly, this supported the existence of giants as recorded in biblical accounts. I knew this was bullshit, but the creationist had a source–a newspaper article written in 1930. I assumed the newspaper reporter was probably a sensationalist idiot, incapable of distinguishing his ass from a hole in the ground. I was certain the reporter had never even read the original scientific paper and had gotten his facts confused. I’ve read hundreds of scientific papers on paleontological discoveries, and scientists always give exact measurements of every single body part when they find something new and different. So I searched and found the article written by E.H. Sellards in 1916, and much to my delight, it was available for free online.
It’s an excellent paper, quite advanced for its time–realize that in 1915 when workers were digging the drainage canal that led to the abundant fossil discoveries here, north Florida was a wilderness with a few subsistence farmers, cotton plantations, and lumber operations. The canal construction bisected an extinct river bed that formerly flowed into the Indian River lagoon. The extinct river was about 100 yards across but was shallow. I suspect it was a kind of brackish stream. Workers kept finding cartloads of Pleistocene-age fossils, attracting the attention of E. H. Sellards, a geologist, and O. Hays, a vertebrate zoologist. Dr. Sellards told the workers to look for human remains, though he didn’t expect them to find any because at the time conventional wisdom assumed that Pleistocene mammal extinctions in North America occurred before man’s arrival on the continent. Much to his surprise, workers and fossil collectors did find human remains in 3 different places along the canal, and human artifacts in 2 additional spots–all associated in the same strata with bones of Pleistocene-age mammals. This was the first evidence ever that humans co-existed with extinct Pleistocene mammals in North America. In total they found the remains of at least 5 individual people.
The human specimens from the first locality included leg, heel, feet, and finger bones. They were found associated with fossils of mammoths, mastodons, horses, deer, and Jefferson’s ground sloth. The mammal fossils had the same degree of mineralization as the human fossils.
The human specimens from the second locality consisted of ankle, pubic, and finger bones and were found with 7 flint tools. I’m no expert on lithics, but from the pictures in Dr. Sellards’ paper, they look like scrapers used to scrape fur from hides. These specimens and artifacts were found associated with fossils of mammoth, horse, tapir, possum, rabbit, cotton rat, armadillo, shrew, alligator, snakes, and acorns. Lots of good plant fossils were initially discovered, but after exposure to air overnight, all but the acorns, turned to dust. Dr. Sellards could have used the benefit of modern techniques to prevent this.
The human specimens from the third locality included arm, shoulder, jaw, foot, tooth, toe, and skull bones along with broken pottery, bone implements, and flint arrowheads.
Dr. Sellards also found mammoth and bird bones with human-made engravings. These were found associated with fossils of horse, saber-tooth, deer, tapir, horse, rabbit, round-tailed muskrat, raccoon, alligator, snake, fish, amphibian, bird, acorns, and wood.
Dr. Sellards wrote “Undisturbed strata over human bones precluded the possiblity of human grave burial intruding into the sediment.” He even found a heavy rock over some of the human bones. Moreover, if these were more recent purposeful graves, more of the skeletons would have been found rather than just disarticulated pieces. Despite Dr. Sellards’ sound reasoning, Ales Hrudlicka, the leading American anthropologist then, insisted these bones were from later Indian burials intruding into the older fossil deposit. This controversy occurred before the invention of carbon dating which would have settled the issue. Dr. Hrudlicka refused to believe Indians co-existed with now extinct Pleistocene mammals, even after discovery of Clovis arrowheads in mammoth bones in 1932. Comically, he once gave a lecture denying this possibility, immediately following presentation of the famous Clovis evidence at a symposium. Some people are just so close-minded, they can’t accept evidence, even after it slaps them upside the head. Which brings me back to the creationist.
In Dr. Sellards paper he only gives measurements for 1 of the human specimens. He measured “the lower margin of the lesser tuberosity to the upper margin of the inner condylur on the femur.” It was 29 cm. On an average modern human that part of the leg is 32 cm. So if anything, that particular Indian was smaller than average–not a 12 foot giant as the full-of-shit journalist reported in his article in 1930. The creationist blogger should have taken the effort to do some critical thinking and deeper research before he regurgitated phony bullshit.
For a century now this drainage canal in Vero Beach has been a productive site for amateur fossil collectors. In addition to species mentioned above, they’ve found fossils of dire wolves, jaguars, bobcats, llamas, bison, pampatheres (a 300 pound armadillo), and Eremotherium–a really giant ground sloth. But this will soon be coming to an end. The city of Vero Beach is planning to cover the canal in concrete and turn it into a sewage outlet, though they are giving scientists extra time to do some last minute collecting before they close this door to the past.
Incidentally, all the human remains from the Vero Beach fossil site were lost. After their discovery the specimens were shuttled back and forth between the Smithsonian Insitution and Florida State, but by 1947 interested parties lost all track of them. What a shame.
“Mammoth Engraved on Bone from Florida”
Mammoth Trumpet (27) 1 January 2012
“Human Remains and Associated Fauna from the Pleistocene of Florida”
Florida State Geological Survey 1916