Skip to main content

Petroglyphs found in Nevada may be North America's oldest

By Mayra Cuevas, CNN
August 18, 2013 -- Updated 1556 GMT (2356 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Scientists say petroglyphs found in Nevada are the oldest so far dated in North America
  • The rock carvings at the dry Winnemucca Lake are very distinctive geometric designs
  • A calcium carbonate deposit on the rock's surface helped researchers date the carvings
  • The petroglyphs "show very early ancient artistic expression," says anthropologist

(CNN) -- From a distance they look like ridges on the side of rocks. But scientists say carvings at a dried-up lake in Nevada's Great Basin may be North America's oldest and shed light into a civilization perhaps 15,000 years old.

"We have long known of the existence of these petroglyphs throughout the world," said Dr. Eugene Hattori, an anthropologist with the Nevada State Museum.

"There are many of these carvings along Nevada's Great Basin ranging in design from human figures, riding on horseback and geometric designs. We have long wondered what the dates are," said Hattori.

"This particular set of petroglyphs at the dry Winnemucca Lake have been known for a number of decades and the designs that were carved into them stand out as very distinctive geometric designs that were deeply carved into the tufa (porous rock)."

University of Colorado geologist Dr. Larry Benson has studied other sites with petroglyphs in the area, but these, he said, are "the oldest ones so far dated in North America."

Those previously thought to be oldest are in Oregon, part of the Paisley Caves complex. The carvings there date back at least 7,630 years.

"This is speculation, but it may be that the people that occupied those caves occupied those sites (in the Great Basin) about the same time," Benson said.

Ancient Tennessee paintings illustrate native beliefs

How old is that petroglyph?

In order to determine the age of this set of petroglyphs in Nevada, researchers studied the calcium carbonate deposit layer on the rock's surface -- an indicator that the rocks had once been submerged in water.

Benson concluded that the incisions were made before the water levels rose during the Ice Age, and the Lake Lahontan formation. The now-dry Winnemucca Lake was a remnant of Lake Lahontan.

"Between 13,000 and 15,000 years ago, the lake levels dropped below the level of the boulders," said Hattori.

"We have other archeological finds in basketry in that area that date about 9,700 to about 11,000 years ago. Now we have these examples in carvings that are associated with that ancient culture," he said.

What do the carvings mean?

The carvings, said Hattori, "show very early ancient artistic expression of these people. 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."

But, he explained, the deeper meanings behind the carvings have yet to be unraveled.

"We do not know the reason why they carved these designs. There are others looking into deeper meanings," he said.

He added that "to the Native American people, this is a record for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. They view this as information on their ancient ancestors."

Cave paintings reveal history in northern Mexico

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Science news
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1934 GMT (0334 HKT)
Nichelle Nichols has spent her whole life going where no one has gone before, and at 81 she's still as sassy and straight-talking as you'd expect from an interstellar explorer.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1152 GMT (1952 HKT)
The world's largest flying aquatic insect, with huge, nightmarish pincers, has been discovered in China's Sichuan province.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1210 GMT (2010 HKT)
As fans of "Grey's Anatomy," "ER" and any other hospital-based show can tell you, emergency-room doctors are fighting against time.
May 29, 2014 -- Updated 1159 GMT (1959 HKT)
Ask 100 robotics scientists why they're inspired to create modern-day automatons and you may get 100 different answers.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
From the air, the Namibian desert looks like it has a bad case of chicken pox.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 1643 GMT (0043 HKT)
The trend for nature-inspired designs has spread across industries from crab-style deep-sea vessels to insect-inspired buildings.
May 25, 2014 -- Updated 1222 GMT (2022 HKT)
Consider it the taxonomist's equivalent of a People magazine's Most Beautiful List.
May 9, 2014 -- Updated 1532 GMT (2332 HKT)
For the first time, scientists have shown it is possible to alter the biological alphabet and still have a living organism that passes on the genetic information.
May 5, 2014 -- Updated 1148 GMT (1948 HKT)
Do we really want to go the route of "Jurassic Park"?
May 2, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Catch a train from the sky! Perhaps in the future, the high-rise superstructures could help revolutionize the way we travel.
May 5, 2014 -- Updated 1458 GMT (2258 HKT)
In a nondescript hotel ballroom last month at the South by Southwest Interactive festival, Andras Forgacs offered a rare glimpse at the sci-fi future of food.
March 20, 2014 -- Updated 1412 GMT (2212 HKT)
For a Tyrannosaurus rex looking for a snack, nothing might have tasted quite like the "chicken from hell."
March 14, 2014 -- Updated 2229 GMT (0629 HKT)
Everyone is familiar with Tyrannosaurus rex, but humanity is only now meeting its much smaller Arctic cousin.
March 6, 2014 -- Updated 1712 GMT (0112 HKT)
At about 33 feet long, weighing 4 to 5 tons and baring large blade-shaped teeth, the dinosaur Torvosaurus gurneyi was a formidable creature.
February 21, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
This Pachyrhinosaurus can go to the head of its class.
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1204 GMT (2004 HKT)
Science is still trying to work out how exactly we reason through moral problems, and how we judge others on the morality of their actions. But patterns are emerging.
February 28, 2014 -- Updated 0006 GMT (0806 HKT)
A promising way to stop a deadly disease, or an uncomfortable step toward what one leading ethicist called eugenics?
February 15, 2014 -- Updated 0107 GMT (0907 HKT)
Seattle paleontologists safely removed the largest fossilized mammoth tusk discovered in the region from a construction site.
April 23, 2013 -- Updated 1013 GMT (1813 HKT)
A mysterious, circular structure, with a diameter greater than the length of a Boeing 747 jet, has been discovered submerged about 30 feet underneath the Sea of Galilee in Israel.
January 17, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Every corner of the planet offers some sort of natural peculiarity with an explanation that makes us wish we'd studied harder in junior high Earth science class.
November 14, 2013 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Deep in a remote, hot, dry patch of northwestern Australia lies one of the earliest detectable signs of life on the planet, tracing back nearly 3.5 billion years, scientists say.
September 4, 2013 -- Updated 1910 GMT (0310 HKT)
We leave genetic traces of ourselves wherever we go -- in a strand of hair left on the subway or in saliva on the side of a glass at a cafe.
ADVERTISEMENT