60-Second Science

Oldest New World Cave Art Discovered

A figure engraved in the bedrock of a Brazilian cave dates back at least 10,000 years. Cynthia Graber reports

Cave painting connects us with our prehistoric artist ancestors. But there's a dearth of such illustration in the Americas. Now a cave in Brazil has been found to house the oldest New World image known. 

The shelter was excavated from 2002 to 2009. In the last days there, scientists exposed a foot-high figure in the bedrock. It has a c-shaped head, two outstretched arms, two legs, and a very visible penis.

Using radiocarbon dating, the researchers dated an ash layer to between 9300 and 10,500 years ago. A hearth found about an inch above the drawing gives similar results. And the researchers used a technique called optically stimulated luminescence on sediment, which also dated to around 10-12,000 years ago.

The scientists say this makes the petroglyph the oldest reliably dated cave art in the Americas. The research was published in journal Public Library of Science One. [W. A. Neves et al., "Rock Art at the Pleistocene/Holocene Boundary in Eastern South America"]

Echoes of this style exist in other early art in the region, amidst diverse styles throughout North and South America. The researchers the range of images reveals a spectrum of symbolic thought dating back to early in the history of human colonization of the hemisphere.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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