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News -- Week of June 4, 2009

University of Florida: Epic carving on fossil bone found in Vero Beach

BY SANDRA RAWLS, CORRESPONDENT

© 2009, VERO BEACH 32963

In what a top Florida anthropologist is calling “the oldest, most spectacular and rare work of art in the Americas,” an amateur Vero Beach fossil hunter has found an ancient bone etched with a clear image of a walking mammoth or mastodon.

According to leading experts from the University of Florida, the remarkable find demonstrates with new and startling certainty that humans coexisted with prehistoric animals more than 12,000 years ago in this fossil- rich region of the state.

No similar carved figure has ever been authenticated in the United States, or anywhere in this hemisphere.

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.

Etched into the bone by a highly sharpened stone tool or the tooth of the animal is the clear image of a walking adult mammoth or mastodon. Extensive tests over the past two months have shown that the image was created when the bone was fresh, presumably right after the animal it belonged to was killed or died.

Experts who have examined the bone, found at a location which has not been publicly disclosed on the northern side of Vero Beach, concluded the carving and surface are of the same age – 12,000 to 14,000 years old — with no evidence of recent tampering (see accompanying story on tests that have been performed to date).

Dr. Barbara Purdy, professor emerita of Anthropology at the University of Florida, on May 19th told Vero Beach 32963 discovery of an image carved into a bone by a prehistoric human is unprecedented in North America, and she called the find by fossil hunter James Kennedy “the oldest, most spectacular, and rare work of art in the Americas.”

“Never before in the Western Hemisphere, has there been a bone from an extinct species incised with a recognizable picture of an animal,” Purdy went on. “It would be ancient evidence that people living in the Americas during the last Ice Age created artistic images of the animals they hunted.”

The four-inch etching of the elephant appears faintly but clearly on the surface of a fossil bone. The image, small yet showing the perspective of one rear leg in front of the other, a dangling trunk and a hint of a squinting eye, was apparently made by a prehistoric resident of south central Florida.

The eyes of specialists around the world are now focused on the bone and image as they subject it to every sort of analysis to determine authenticity and consider its origins.

Purdy, a curator emerita in archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, has been overseeing the effort to painstakingly examine the carving. As results from over a dozen specialists accumulated, and her excitement and conviction of its authenticity increased, she prepared to release news of the find to the scientific community at large.

“I did everything in my power to show this thing was a fake. I was not going to stick my neck out on something this rare unless I was as sure as you can be in science.”

After sending out photos and detailed reports from University of Florida labs, Purdy’s email box was soon filled with reactions from her colleagues.

World renowned geochemist Thomas Stafford commended Purdy with eloquence on her efforts from his lab in Colorado.

“You have done true and intense due diligence in determining whether or not the object is ancient and therefore science is on your side,” he said in the email read by Purdy to Vero Beach 32963. “If later interpretations agree or disagree with your and others present opinions, it is just the wondrous process of science, by which we asymptotically approach truth. Sometimes this takes a few hours in the case of a mathematical proof; sometimes it takes centuries in the case of discerning evolution’s inner workings.”

In Britain, Dr. Paul G. Bahn, an archaeologist with a doctoral degree from the University of Cambridge, is a specialist in prehistoric art; he led the team that discovered the first Ice Age cave art in Britain in 2003 and 2004. Purdy included him in the loop of information on the Vero bone, and shared his reaction with Vero Beach 32963 as well.

It shows the requisite scientific skepticism of finds as rare as this, and at the same time, his optimism that an amazing discovery has indeed been made in Vero Beach. “When you see something like this, your first thought is that it must be a fake. But there has to be a first time, and this might be it.”

Dr. C Andrew Hemmings, an archaeologist at the University of Texas at Austin, is a specialist in the Paleoindian period of prehistory and in bone and ivory tools. He is especially interested in aspects of ancient Florida, and has worked at underwater sites in the Aculla River. He is currently working on an excavation off the west coast near Tampa, and took a break from his work to send his approbation.

“Andy was cute,” Purdy says. “He took all my reports and said, ‘This certainly looks like a perfectly good mammoth carving to me.’”

Meanwhile, Kennedy, the amateur finder of the fossil, is stunned at the significance of his almost chance discovery of the etching. An avid and longtime fossil hunter born and raised in Vero Beach, Kennedy found the bone as long ago as four years in a northern area of the city. He kept the bone fragment in a box at his home along with others he had found, still caked with soil in places, awaiting closer inspection.

One day in February, he closely examined the bone, wiping fine dirt from the thick fragment. As he cleaned it carefully under the bright light of a work table lamp, suddenly he saw a distinctive shape carved into the smooth, curved side of the dark surface. Like a face arising suddenly from a visual puzzle, the appearance of the animal image took him by surprise.

The clear outline of a striding elephant with large tusks appeared beneath the bright light. He knew he had something important in his hands. Here was something more than man and mammoth together, but a personal expression, a work of art or perhaps a religious presentation from a lost and distant world thousands of years in the past.

“I knew this was the coolest thing I had ever found,” says Kennedy. “I was holding something somebody made thousands of years ago.”

Kennedy immediately called an old friend, Vero attorney Gene Roddenberry. A member of the Historical Society, Roddenberry had helped James with other finds the younger man had made over the years. A large mammoth tooth he found in the main canal as a teenager was donated to the city museum, and other large bones had been donated to the University of Florida.

Both men knew the carving needed to go quickly to Gainesville, the state university system being the base of leading experts in prehistoric Florida.

Right away, scientists wondered at so rare a find: Could the image have been carved more recently into the rock-hard surface of the bone that is at least 10,000 years old? Could an indigenous Floridian from even the last millennium have chiseled an image of a creature that disappeared with the Ice Age?

The image looked old and worn and seemed similar to European cave paintings and to artifacts found far from the Americas, but was it authentic?

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.

One test, a rare earth element analysis, is expected to be concluded this week to determine where in Florida’s geological strata or layers the bone was originally located. This powerful new method utilizes the process of fossilization itself.

When bones become fossilized, calcium is slowly replaced by minerals including rare earth elements like scandium and cerium. Bone takes up these rare earth elements, or REEs, in direct proportion to the amount present in the particular strata of earth where the bone was originally located.

This gives the bone a unique REE signature that confirms the earth layer where a bone originally lay and gives an idea of its age. Scientists can then compare the results to those of others fossil bones found in similar settings in Vero Beach.

The discovery of the etching brings a vivid clarity to the idea that early humans lived in our county among the extinct animals of Florida’s Pleistocene epoch.

The Pleistocene spanned from 1.8 million to about 10,000 years ago. Many types of trees, mosses, insects, mollusks, flowering plants, birds, and mammals survive today from the last years of that era.

The Pleistocene was also characterized by large land mammals. Mammoths and their cousins the mastodons, as well as bison, llamas, saber-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, and other large animals, roamed the then-drier landscapes of Florida.

Native horses and camels galloped across Florida grasslands that resembled today’s African savannahs. They disappeared at the end of the last Ice Age with the advent of a wetter climate. Shorelines retreated to what they are today as water held in ice returned to the seas.

No one knows when the first people arrived in Florida, or how many waves of such people may have lived here as climate and geography went through tremendous changes.

The first inhabitants of North America were small groups of nomadic huntergatherers; few signs of their existence have been found. Most linguists and physical anthropologists believe these people originally came primarily from Siberia. Moving eastward across the wide Bering land bridge known as Beringia, they may have arrived in North America as much as 30,000 years ago or even before.

The earliest people’s remains and artifacts are rare amid the more abundant evidence of those who lived much later. In Florida, rapid commercial development has sometimes led to disruption or even destruction of fossil sites. When professionals are called in, sometimes they must work in haste as projects want to push forward.

Despite that, a wealth of spearheads, knives, blades, scrapers and other tools made of stone, as well as tools made of ivory or the bones of extinct animals have been found throughout the United States and from Florida. Yet, nothing like the carved mammoth image has ever been found. Such evidence of artistic representation is known from the caves of Europe and the steppes of Asia, but not North America.

This is hardly the first time an important fossil find has occurred here. Amateur fossil hunters other than James Kennedy have found the bones of large Pleistocene mammals at various locations around the county.

The unique characteristics of Florida’s geology account for this improbable sounding reality. The peninsula is formed entirely of sedimentary rock lying upon a foundation of thick limestone. The limestone was laid down when the state was covered by shallow seas between 65 and 20 million years ago.

There are no dinosaur fossils in Florida, but plentiful mammals are often discovered in old streambeds and sinkholes. Fresh water was more scarce during the Pleistocene than today, and animals and people flocked to sources of the precious liquid. These circumstances mean that mammal fossils are not generally encased in rock or found deep below the surface as they can be elsewhere.

Vero Beach is already one of the best known and most discussed fossil sites in Florida, producing two fossilized partial skeletons, the older of which became known as Vero Man.

Isaac M. Weills and Frank Ayers found the fossil human bones here nearly 100 years ago where the Indian River Farms Company was constructing a drainage canal that intersected the old streambed of Van Valkenburg Creek.

The site is near U.S. One and the new county administration complex. A great number of extinct mammal bones were also found along the old creek-bed, including the first find of a sub-species of North American tapir that would be named after its location: Tapirous veroensus.

Years of contention about the age and nature of the partial sets of human bones followed.

Although the anthropologists and paleontologists who study the Pleistocene have long agreed about the co-mingling of early human groups and extinct mammals in Florida, questions lingered over the old local finds.

Back in 1915 some scientists questioned whether the bones of Vero Man were carried into deposits older than the bones actually were, by accidental mixing of ground layers or other means. Skull measurement techniques, since discredited, were used by one scientist to estimate the age of the bones, and contradict a Florida geologist who said Vero Man was much older, a premise now widely held.

The bones and skull were dated at the time by acclaimed state geologist Elias Sellards as being at least 10,000 years old. The bones’ antiquity was questioned by Ales Hrdicka of the Smithsonian Institution who believed they were much younger. He asserted the heavily mineralized human bones, clearly fossils, were of recent origin. His view was the fossilization had happened quickly and humans never lived here in the Pleistocene.

Over the next 30 years the bones and skull were housed by numerous persons and institutions. There was even some evidence the bones had actually belonged to a woman and not a man. The skull was cast in cement, damaged, and then disappeared. Femurs and the other remaining bones today are scattered at different state institutions and at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.

Although Sellard’s assessment is now generally accepted, there are still those who have questioned the presence of man living here with the great mammals long gone. James Kennedy’s discovery appears to offer unequivocal evidence that human beings lived in our area during the Pleistocene, and that Sellards analysis was likely correct.

Barbara Purdy has spent years studying and analyzing the earliest Floridians and the evidence they left behind. Her most recent book, “Florida’s People during the last Ice Age,” released last year, offers an overview of the last 100 years of research into Florida’s earliest people.Fossil sites and finds in Vero Beach and Melbourne are among the many she describes in detail.

Purdy would like to see a new, more complete excavation of the old Vero site that has continued to yield fossil animal bones and human artifacts like spear points. She calls for a new “well-designed project incorporating the expertise of individuals from various disciplines using 21st century techniques.” She estimates a thorough scientifically executed excavation would cost around $150,000.

“What we need down there requires going down eight feet or more into the deposits,” she says. “All material needs to be screened with fine mesh. It all needs to be carefully done, not contract archeology, but a painstaking University-type project.”

The question of pre-historic man living here during the late Pleistocene now may be resolved, but scientists wonder what other finds might be discovered. The famous site of Vero Man, where human fossils were first found, will likely be disrupted this year due to expansion of the Vero Beach water plant. Other scientists interested in the age of bones and the surrounding sediments found there plan to begin work in June. Any excavation will be the last opportunity to properly examine the site before the water plant project.

Sometimes people do find the thing that dreams are made of. For Barbara Purdy and James Kennedy, the image under the light in February revealed a once in a lifetime discovery. The elephant carving will bring new interest in the geology and fossil beds of Indian River County. Hopefully the bone will find a permanent home at the Natural History Museum of the University of Florida.

This extraordinary and rare piece of human history will put Vero Beach in textbooks for years to come. Stories will be written and more extensive explorations will certainly follow. Barbara Purdy dedicated her recent book to Elias Sellards whom she calls “a visionary.”

Today, with amateurs and pros looking at an old bone and an ancient hand’s depiction of an awesome beast, he would certainly be smiling.


What experts say

Dr. Kevin S. Jones, chairperson of the University of Florida Department of Materials Science and Engineering:

“I am quite convinced this carving is genuine. Nothing we know here indicates anything other than great age for both the bone and the drawing. The image is hard to see and does not stand out, the way you think it might if it had been created for that purpose. But more importantly the coloration, the degradation of the image, and wear patterns inside and outside the cut surfaces are completely consistent. I feel along with my colleagues J.J. Mecholsky and Gerald Borne, who have also worked on it, that this image is very ancient. The results we got from the Energy Dispersive X-ray spectroscopy analysis of the surface conducted in a scanning electron microscope eliminate any possibility a polymer coating was used to make the inside and outside of the cuts look the same. I am very comfortable saying that this bone and its image are both very old.”

Dr. Michael W. Warren, forensic anthropologist and Director of the C.A.Pound Human Identification Laboratory at University of Florida:

“In my line of work, we try to be quite conservative in our statements. I worked on this image in the bone with our cut mark specialist Dr. Laurel Freas. What you see in this image are cut marks eroded over a very long period of time. There are no distinct edges and they are worn and eroded in a manner not only consistent with a long process but exposure to water. The appearance is of gradual alteration has been going on a very long time. It was exciting for us to work on this because it became more and more clear that it was an authentic image of great age.”


James Kennedy: ‘I’ve always been good at finding things’

James Kennedy’s first fossil might have jumped up and bit him, as the saying goes, but for the old cement mixing tub he was floating in, down a canal just north of downtown Vero Beach.

He was sixteen years old, and taking a break in a day of fishing. Suddenly, the bottom of the tub hit a bump. The boy hopped out to investigate. Where the tub had scraped, a large, layered tooth of a mammoth, rock- hard, with a surface of serpentine folds, emerged from the sandy water.

Kennedy could hardly imagine what his wet hands held: a piece of the very body of a massive Ice Age mammal, a beast that had trumpeted and thundered up some prehistoric precursor to nearby US 1. For James Kennedy it was a revelation, and the beginning of a ceaseless quest.

The cement tub is long gone, but Kennedy has never stopped searching, digging in canals, riverbanks, and old streambeds across the geologically unique landscapes of Florida, among the richest fossil beds in the country.

The arid scrub-covered ridge along Old Dixie Highway and US 1, visible between Fort Pierce and Vero Beach, was once an ancient shoreline, one of several left in Florida where the rising and falling tides caused by ice sheets far away left crests of higher ground. But it is the rare watering holes of fresh water that mammals — including people — congregated near, undulating old stream beds often just four to eight feet beneath the surface today, where many remains still lie.

James Kennedy, 39, was born and raised in Vero. Through a tight-knit network of supporters of his passion, he has persevered as doggedly as anyone in a field of highly trained specialists. With books and computer, pamphlet and lecture, he has learned about the lost past of ancient Florida.

And he has more than that. He has instincts, maybe even a sixth sense of how people and animals got around here in Vero a very long time ago.

Amateur fossil hunters like James Kennedy have always been important in the discovery of valuable artifacts. “Sue”, the gigantic Tyrannosaurus now at the Chicago Field Musuem, was found by an amateur, Sue Hendrikson. Locally, lore has it that much of a mastodon sits in a middle-class Vero home, unearthed from a local site, and million-dollar homes sit on fossil beds where many a bone or spearhead has turned up in swales and ditches.

“You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve seen,” says Kennedy, sitting at his work table littered with bones, books, and tools. Plastic cigarette lighters and an ashtray sit next to a spear point and several fossil vertebrae.

From his finds he has learned to imagine, and reconstruct scenarios of prehistory.

“Up on one of the northern rivers, there is a place with a bluff and a big hole underwater where a whole bunch, and I mean a big bunch, of mammoth and mastodon bones are,”

he says. “It looks clear to me checking out some of those bones, they might have been driven there and slaughtered by people long ago, just like a butcher room for a kitchen”.

Kennedy has been resourceful when money was hard to come by for supplies. He seems to retain good friends; some are earnest and eager to help.

“Everybody that knows me knows how much I love this stuff,” he says. “I know a private land owner who’s let me dig around on his property where there are quite a few fossils. He gave me a birthday present of permission to dig over there. People just know that is what I love to do.”

While researchers often use calibrated brass sifters, Kennedy’s tools are ambitious if makeshift methods to aid in his searches.

“I’ve made myself all sorts of sifters, wire screen sifters and things like that, to help look for bones,” Kennedy says. “I wanted to control the water pressure,” he said. “So I took a small water pump, and a three-horse-power engine, some PVC pipe, and wire, and a garden hose, and I made this thing to wash away sand.”

Sometimes a site draws him back again and again, like a superstition makes a child skip over cracks.

“I get an itch to go, and I go,” he says. “I’ve been to some places a hundred times in a year.”

“I’ve always been good at finding things, all my life,” he says. “I have a sort of instinct, a kind of gut feeling about whether or not something is going to turn up.”

He toys with a cardboard box of bone pieces and giant sharks teeth he has pulled out of a drawer. Kennedy lives in a quiet area of South Vero near his mother. It is from her, some say, that he inherited a keen insight to the past and future.

James Kennedy claims to have his own cataloguing methods that allow him to keep track of his many digs and finds.

He was not prepared for the news that greeted him in Gainesville about the extreme rarity of the carved elephant image.

Nor was his friend, Gene Roddenberry, a local attorney with a long, deep interest in Vero’s history, who had driven Kennedy and the etched bone up to Gainesville and Dr. Barbara Purdy for initial analysis.

The result could not have been more reassuring. Purdy and the UF scientists were in full discovery mode, excited and anxious to apply all the methods of current science to confirm or deny the extreme rarity of the drawing and its possible enormous significance.

The news of just how rare their find appeared to be left Kennedy and Roddenberry completely agog.

“I was in shock,” said Kennedy. “I mean, I just had no idea how few things like that there are. Gene was with me and we started talking about it, the magnitude of it. And Gene is very well-spoken,” said Kennedy. “But he almost started stuttering. We were both in shock.”

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