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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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.”