The oldest art in the Americas depicts a 13,000 year old mammoth

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

There are European cave paintings that are 30000 years old, but the art of the ancient Americas remains a mystery. This bone fragment features an engraving of either a mammoth or a mastodon, and is at least 13000 years old.

This bone was discovered in Florida by fossil hunter James Kennedy, who discovered the inscription while cleaning the fossil. Realizing its potential anthropological significance, Kennedy turned the bone over to experts at the Smithsonian Museum and the University of Florida, who have now been able to confirm that this really is authentically ancient, and not just a clever forgery (making counterfeit mammoth engravings was a big thing in the 19th century, for whatever reason).

University of Florida anthropologist Barbara Purdy observes just how painstaking the process was to establish the bone's authenticity:

"The results of this investigation are an excellent example of the value of interdisciplinary research and cooperation among scientists. There was considerable skepticism expressed about the authenticity of the incising on the bone until it was examined exhaustively by archaeologists, paleontologists, forensic anthropologists, materials science engineers and artists."


Smithsonian anthropologist Dennis Stanford says that this is the first known piece of American art to depict a mammoth or mastodon, while there are hundreds of such examples to be found in Europe. The bone itself probably did belong to one of these two giant ancient creatures, although it's possible the bone came from a giant sloth instead.

It's hard to date the bone with certainty, but we do know that mammoths had died out by 13,000 years ago, which means this engraving is at least that old, as all knowledge of these creatures was lost until the discovery of their fossils in the last couple of centuries. This provides the clearest evidence yet that the ancient peoples of the Americas created artistic representations of the creatures around them.


Via the Journal of Archaeological Science.