STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Okay, let's talk about what may be one of the most significant pieces of prehistoric art ever found in North America. It's a carving of a mammoth on a piece of fossilized bone, dating back to the Ice Age. An amateur fossil hunter found it several years ago in Vero Beach, Florida. And after three years of study, researchers now say they think it's authentic.
NPR's Greg Allen went to Vero Beach to meet the man behind the discovery.
GREG ALLEN: James Kennedy is quick to tell you he doesn't know all that much about archaeology or prehistoric art.
JAMES KENNEDY: I mean I'm not a scientist. I just go out and I dig up bones good. I'm good at finding them. That's one thing I do, do, buddy.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ALLEN: Kennedy is 41, with sandy blonde hair and a goatee. Around his neck, he wears a large prehistoric shark tooth. He grew up in Vero Beach, a quiet town on Florida's Atlantic Coast known mostly for its orange and grapefruit groves. But it's also a good place to find fossils.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOSSILS MOVED AROUND)
ALLEN: At Kennedy's house in Vero Beach, boxes of fossils are everywhere.
KENNEDY: Here's a mammoth vertebrae. Here's a piece of mammoth rib. This is a piece of the tusk right here. I've got bigger chunks of that. But that's mammoth ivory.
ALLEN: Mammoths and mastodons were abundant in Florida until about 13,000 years ago, when they became extinct. While there are lots of fossilized bones, the one thing never found in the Western Hemisphere were any images of these Ice Age elephant ancestors, such as those found in European cave paintings - until now.
In an article published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, researchers from the Smithsonian and the University of Florida say that the depiction of a mammoth engraved on a fossilized bone appears to be an authentic piece of art dating back at least 13,000 years.
KENNEDY: I seen the markings on it right here. Like back here...
ALLEN: Sitting at Kennedy's kitchen table, we're looking at a picture of the engraved bone. He has the original stored in a vault. For more than two years, it sat in a box under his kitchen sink. He says he picked it up about five years ago at a site in Vero Beach. He immediately recognized it as a piece of fossilized bone, probably from a mammoth or mastodon, about 15 inches long and four inches high.
He says he didn't see the engraving on it though until a couple of years later, when he was cleaning some of his fossils. On this one, as the dirt came off, a picture emerged.
KENNEDY: First, I thought it just, you know, could be scrapes and marks on it. But no, there's no mistaking it. You have a walking mammoth right there. I mean, here's his tail, his tusk, his trunk, everything is there. I thought it was really neat, but I thought that there was lots of other stuff like this. I had no idea there was nothing else like that.
ALLEN: In fact, it's one of a kind. Although there are stone points and other archaeological evidence suggesting humans lived in North America during the Ice Age, this may be the only piece of art in the Western Hemisphere dating back to that period.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEAVY RAIN)
ALLEN: In Vero Beach, standing under an umbrella in a Florida rainstorm, archaeologist Barbara Purdy describes her reaction when James Kennedy first showed her his discovery.
BARBARA PURDY: Well, we were very skeptical, of course. Nothing like that had ever been found in the Western Hemisphere before, so. And it would be nice if we had another one somewhere.
ALLEN: Purdy has come to Vero Beach with other researchers from the University of Florida and the Smithsonian to survey the site of a new dig planned not far from where Kennedy says he found his fossil. After he brought it to them, skeptical researchers at the University of Florida conducted extensive testing of the fossilized bone. Rare Earth element analysis showed it did come from the Vero Beach area. A scanning electron microscope indicated the carving appeared to be the same age as the bone.
Archaeologist Jeff Speakman conducted his own extensive testing and research on the fossil at the Smithsonian. Despite his group's best efforts, he says they couldn't find anything to suggest the mammoth engraving is a fake.
JEFF SPEAKMAN: The lines very clean, well-rounded, did not have any sort of debris field or sharp lines that would indicate any sort of modern forgery.
ALLEN: What would really help convince researchers that the piece of Ice Age art is authentic would be to find other examples. That's why Purdy and Speakman have come to a spot that's well-known to archaeologists, the Old Vero Ice Age Site. It was first excavated nearly a hundred years ago. In 1915, Florida State's geologist documented fossilized human skeletons found alongside remains of Ice Age mammals.
The age of those human remains was later disputed by other scientists and the Old Vero site became known mostly as a spot popular with amateur fossil hunters - people like Victor Zinck.
VICTOR ZINCK: When we first came here, I could walk the edge of this bank and pick up bison teeth, broken elephant teeth just laying scattered all over the ground. It was quite a place.
ALLEN: Zinck is here to give the archaeologists practical advice on where they may want to dig. The University of Florida has put together a proposal to fully excavate the site. Dr. Purdy says, although the Old Vero site was first discovered nearly a century ago, it's been investigated up to now mostly by paleontologists.
PURDY: And the archaeology has sort of gone begging. So now, if we can get a combination of both working together, I think that it's going to work out a little bit better.
ALLEN: A group in Vero Beach, The Old Vero Ice Age Sites Committee, is working to raise money to fund the project.
As for James Kennedy's mammoth engraving, both the University of Florida and the Smithsonian may have to be content with replicas they've cast from the original. Kennedy plans to offer his find for sale at auction. And the going price for a piece that's been described as the oldest, most spectacular and rare work of art in the Americas, is likely to be well out of their budgets.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.