Amateur Fossil Hunter Makes Mammoth Find In Florida A carving of a mammoth or mastodon on a fossilized bone, found years ago in Vero Beach, is being recognized as important early art. The find has sparked new interest in a site first excavated nearly a century ago.
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Florida Fossil Hunter Gets Credit For Big Find

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Florida Fossil Hunter Gets Credit For Big Find

Florida Fossil Hunter Gets Credit For Big Find

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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.


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.


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: 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: 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.


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: 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: 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: Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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