Carvings near Nevada’s Pyramid Lake have abstract etchings.

Eugene Hattori • Nevada State Museum,

Science briefs: Oldest North American petroglyphs found

  • August 17, 2013 - 11:53 PM

oldest north america petroglyphs found

Ancient rock etchings along a dried-up lake bed in Nevada have been confirmed to be the oldest recorded petroglyphs in North America, dating back at least 10,000 years.

The petroglyphs found on limestone boulders near Pyramid Lake in northern Nevada’s high desert are similar in design to etchings found at a lake in Oregon that are believed to be at least 7,600 years old. Unlike later drawings that sometimes depict a spear or antelope, the carvings are abstract with tightly clustered geometric designs. Scientists can’t tell for sure who carved them, but they were found on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s reservation land.

“We initially thought people 12,000 or 10,000 years ago were primitive, but their artistic expressions and technological expertise associated with these paints a much different picture,” said Eugene Hattori, the curator of anthropology at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City who co-authored a paper on the findings earlier this month in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The petroglyphs could be as much as 14,800 years old, said Larry Benson, a geochemist who used radiocarbon testing to date the etchings and co-wrote the paper. Researchers have suggested the etchings represent various meteorological symbols, such as clouds and lightning, perhaps the Milky Way.

neandertHals may have invented own tools

Sometimes it seems Neanderthals can’t catch a break. Every time an archaeologist comes up with new evidence for something clever they did, another claims they learned it from their modern human cousins.

But new discoveries of polished bone tools at two prehistoric sites in France suggest that Neanderthals independently invented these finely made implements, without a helping hand from Homo sapiens. The finds may represent the best sign yet that Neanderthals were no boneheads when it came to technological innovation.

Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia between about 135,000 and 35,000 years ago, after which they went extinct. For a long while they had the territory to themselves; but then, sometime between 45,000 and 40,000 years ago, modern humans moved into Europe from Africa. At roughly the same time, Neanderthal behavior seemed to become more modern: Their stone tools became more sophisticated, they began to wear jewelry, and they started using bone tools. For many archaeologists, the timing suggested that Neanderthals had copied modern human behavior.

Now, two teams of archaeologists working at Neanderthal sites in the Dordogne region of southwest France have found four sophisticated bone tools that they say are dated earlier than the first known existence of modern humans in the region. The teams were led by Shannon McPherron of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and by Marie Soressi of Leiden University in the Netherlands. They jointly reported that all the bone tools are a specialized type of implement called a lissoir (French for “to polish”), previously found only at modern human sites. Most archaeologists think that lissoirs were used to make animal hides impermeable to water.

The team says there’s little doubt that Neanderthals made the bone tools, made from either red deer or reindeer ribs, because both sites also feature stone tools typical of Neanderthal culture and show no evidence of modern human occupation at any time.

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