Friday 24 February 2012

Pleistocene rock carving from Brazil; possibly the oldest art in the Americas.

The earliest people arrived in the Americas some time between 12 000 and 13 500 years ago. They are known from burials and tools scattered (albeit thinly) across both North and South America. Art made by these early Americans is far less well known. A series of linear marks from a cave in Epullán Grande in Argentina were found bellow an archaeological horizon with dated to 11 600 years ago, but whether the marks were man-made is unclear. Some cave paintings at Baixão do Perna in Brazil have been associated with charcoal in the same cave dated to 10 800 years ago, but it is unclear if the charcoal-makers were responsible for, or even contemporary with, the cave paintings. Rock art at a number of sites in the Southwest United States appears to show mammoths, implying they may be of a great age, but none of these has been reliably dated.

In a paper published in the journal PLoS ONE on 22 February 2012, a team of scientists lead by Walter Neves of the Laboratório de Estudos Evolutivos Humanos at the Instituto de Biociências at the Universidade de São Paulo, report the discovery of a humanoid figure carved into a rock surface at the Lapa do Santo rockshelter in Central-Eastern Brazil. The figure has been chipped into the rock and has a 'C' shaped head, three digeted limbs and a large phalus.

The Lapo de Santa rock carving. From Neves et al. (2012).

The chronology of the Lapo de Santa rock shelter is well understood. There appear to have been three distinct phases of settlement there. The first lasted from about 12 000 to about 8000 years ago. The second was about 4400 years ago, and the third about 800 years ago. In all cases the settlers appear to have lived by gathering and hunting small game.

The rock carving was found 30 mm bellow a hearth dated to 9470 years before the present. Mineral grains from immediately above the carving were dated using Optically Stimulated Luminescence, a technique that can date the last time mineral grains were exposed to sunlight, giving an age of at least 10 200 years, and probably closer to 11 700 years.