When the first American settlers took up the practice of cave art, they made sure to depict themselves as being well-endowed. Archaeologists call the rock-carving you see here — a stick figure with a penis the size of its arm — "the little horny man." And while it's definitely an amusing name, it's also compelling evidence that humans settled the Western Hemisphere earlier than we once thought.
The research team, led by University of São Paulo's Walter Neves, discovered the carving in 2009 while excavating Brazil's Lapa do Santo rock shelter.
"During the final days of excavation... an anthropomorphic figure was exposed at the bottom of the archaeological deposit at an approximate depth of 4.0 meters," explain the researchers in the latest issue of PLoS ONE. They continue:
The figure was pecked in the bedrock and consisted of a small anthropomorphic filiform petroglyph with tri-digits, a c-like head, and an oversized phallus. The figure is 30 cm long (from head to feet) and 20 cm wide.
When the researchers carbon dated the rock art, they determined it to be between 9,000 and 12,000 years old. Artistic manifestations created during the Upper Paleolithic (ca. 40,000 to 10,000 years ago) are exceedingly rare, and are almost unheard of in the Americas. That makes this finding interesting on a couple of levels. The researchers write:
These data allow us to suggest that the anthropomorphic figure is the oldest reliably dated figurative petroglyph ever found in the New World [i.e. the Western Hemisphere], indicating that cultural variability during the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary in South America was not restricted to stone tools and subsistence, but also encompassed the symbolic dimension.
The discovery also adds to a growing body of evidence that humanity's relationship with sexuality likely emerged early on in our cultural development. In an interview with LiveScience, Neves said that the rock carving may have been used in fertility rituals. Statues, sculptures and drawings depicting the human anatomy, including many with disproportionately huge phalli, have been discovered throughout much of Europe, with some examples dating back over 30,000 years. This latest evidence would seem to suggest that sex and sexuality persisted throughout generations of early humans, and were equally important to the Western Hemisphere's earliest settlers.
Images via Neves et al.