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Depiction of a Mammoth in the Prehistoric Rock Art of Southeastern Utah
2010 Nov 02

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Flagstaff, AZ.


Copyright E. Malotki 2010

Between 16,000 and 11,000 years ago, during the final phase of the last Ice Age, enormous elephant-like mammoths and mastodons roamed the North American continent, including the Colorado Plateau, along with humans and other large mammals such as bison, sloth, camel, horse and llama. Because humans elsewhere in the world were image-makers, archaeologists have always assumed that the earliest entrants to the New World, too, would have brought with them the universal predisposition for image-making, including the making of rock art. Yet, rock art researchers have not found verifiable depictions of these pachyderms, despite ample fossil evidence that the two probably shared the same home range until these large beasts became extinct at the end of the Ice Age.


Copyright Ken Gary 2010

That is, until 2009, when James Kennedy, an amateur fossil collector in Florida, turned up with an exciting discovery—a small mammoth image, approximately 3 inches in length, incised on a 15-inch piece of mineralized mammal bone. Initially suspected to be a fraud, like other similar “finds,” the “Vero Beach mammoth,” so named for the fossil-rich site where it was found, was exhaustively tested and pronounced authentic by the investigative team under Dr. Barbara Purdy, professor emerita of Anthropology at the University of Florida. This was sensational pictorial evidence that Paleoamericans and Ice Age megafauna had indeed coexisted. [See our Latest News article 'Discovery of Mammoth Carving on Fossil Bone' 19 June 2009].

Now, as discussed in a paper in preparation by two Arizona rock art specialists, Ekkehart Malotki of Flagstaff and Henry Wallace from Tucson, the confirmation of a second probable mammoth depiction in North America is a similarly spectacular find. Rather than being engraved on a piece of portable art, Mammoth Number Two occurs amidst other petroglyphs incised high on a sheer cliff of Navajo Sandstone bordering the floodplain of the San Juan River in southeastern Utah.

The rock art site, consisting entirely of petroglyphs representing various prehistoric and historic cultures, was first described in 1985 by archaeologists from the Crow Canyon Center for Southwestern Archaeology based in Cortez, Colorado. However, their report did not discuss the mammoth design. In the early 1990s, Malotki was introduced to the site by Joe Pachak, an artist from Bluff, who had begun investigating the site on his own. But it was not until 2009 that he was able to revisit the site with Wallace, who made a detailed examination of the find under magnification.

Although the image, one among many engravings of humans and animals at its location, had been known to a few archaeologists and rock art enthusiasts, and its image has been depicted in print by Malotki and by Northern Arizona University professor Larry Agenbroad, it had never been scientifically described or investigated, probably because of its difficult access more than 15 feet above ground level. Also impeding its recognition as a mammoth is its indistinctness—the image is best viewed under conditions of strong side light—and the fact that it is dominated by the much larger depiction of what is probably a bison that partially overlies the mammoth.

Malotki and Wallace had first to establish that it was prehistoric and not the work of a modern forger, and second that the image actually did portray a mammoth and was not the product of auto-suggestion or mind-sight. A visual examination of the engraved contours of the pachyderm by means of a hand lens with 5X magnification revealed no evidence for any use of metal tools as might be anticipated for a modern forgery. Other evidence for deep-time prehistoric manufacture includes rock wear and degree of repatination—the surface varnish deposited on rocks over thousands of years—that was greater than that observed on nearby Puebloan and Historic period petroglyphs in comparable environmental settings.

Identification of the megamammal was accomplished by a combination of anatomical details observable in the portrayal itself. Though not drawn as elegantly or with the same anatomical precision as the Vero Beach specimen, the San Juan River image shows all the diagnostic features of a Mammuthus columbi, or Columbian mammoth, resident in western North America during the Pleistocene: a dome-shaped head, long trunk, and two relatively short tusks which, according to Flagstaff paleontologist David Gillette, may indicate that the artist intended to portray a young or female animal. Particularly noteworthy is the depiction of an anatomical detail no hoaxer would be likely to have known about: the strikingly bifurcated tip of the mammoth’s trunk, known as “fingers” by mammalogists. This feature has nearly disappeared in modern elephants found in both Asia and Africa, but is a strong identifying mark of their extinct ancestors.

In addition, says Malotki, modern counterfeit designs are nearly always done in isolation, whereas the San Juan River mammoth is part of a panel that includes not only a superimposed bison but also several other petroglyph designs that, based on stylistic criteria and weathering, appear to have been made at about the same time as the mammoth.

If this line of evidence is finally found to be well-grounded and accepted by the rock art and archaeological community, then the San Juan River mammoth will indeed fulfill its potential as the second newsworthy piece of direct visual evidence that man and mammoth coexisted in North America, and specifically that they lived together on the Colorado Plateau of the American Southwest.

Ekkehart Malotki and Henry Wallace
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