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Brain Food: Ice Age Art

Courtesy of Ekkehart Malotki

A Northern Arizona University professor emeritus says he’s never seen anything like a recent find in the Utah desert. This, despite 25 years spent studying rock art at thousands of sites. Retired ethnolinguist Ekkehart Malotki is researching what could be the oldest known realistic engravings of Columbian mammoths in the Western Hemisphere: petroglyphs from the Ice Age near the San Juan River.

“The big challenge, of course is dating the art, an endeavor that is still fraught with many problems. But now we have a site near Bluff … a site with authentic, figurative Ice Age art,” Malotki says.

As if displayed on a gigantic gallery wall, rock art created by various cultures over thousands of years spans nearly a mile of Navajo sandstone. Among abstract drawings of deer, big-horn sheep and flute players, Malotki says it’s the detailed portrayal of these mammoths that makes these petroglyphs chronological markers for the Pleistocene era — dating back perhaps 13,000 years, to the time of the animal’s extinction.

“What is most exciting about these depictions is that at the tips of the trunks are  bifurcations that clearly depict the prehensile fingers that proboscideans have … these sort of lips at the tips of the trunk. They’re known as fingers by mammalogists,” Malotki says.

Malotki says one of the most exciting parts of the discovery is that we now have clear evidence that early humans and giant Ice Age animals coexisted in this area.

“So these people shared the same landscape with these mega mammals on the Colorado Plateau, and that is unique now in both Americas,” Malotki says.

Malotki envisions an interpretive area that showcases this Ice Age art.

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