For the past 10 years or so, there’s been a surge of interest among archaeologists in the people who discovered the New World. Most of the buzz revolves around when, exactly, those nomads crossed the Bering land bridge into Alaska, with a focus on the distinctive stone tools they used. Nobody talks much about the artistic leanings of the first Americans, simply because examples of their cave paintings, jewelry or other symbolic creations are few and far between.
But in July 2009, after seven years of excavation work, researchers found a humble stick figure engraved in bedrock in Lapa do Santo, in central Brazil. In their report, published yesterday in PLoS ONE, the scientists call it the “oldest, indisputable testimony of rock art in the Americas.”
The figure, 30 centimeters long and 20 centimeters wide, has a “c-like” head, three digits on each hand and an “oversized phallus,” the researchers note. Using radiocarbon dating, the team estimates the engraving, called a petroglyph, is between 9,000 and 12,000 years old.
A few other early American petroglyphs have been reported. In the 1990s, researchers found 11,000-year-old “linear marks” in Epullán Grand Cave, in Patagonia, but whether these were deliberately made by people is debated. More recently, archaeologists discovered engravings of mammoths at sites in Colorado and California, but these rocks could not be precisely dated.
Intriguingly, these early examples of American art are strikingly diverse. For example, the Cueva de las Manos, or “Cave of the Hands,” in Argentina, is about 9,000 years old and full of intricate paintings of hands. And the Epullán Grand Cave contains mostly geometric shapes. The researchers argue that this much artistic range, especially when paired with the noted variability in stone tools, suggests that the first Americans reached the New World much earlier than previously thought.