Nevada Petroglyphs Are Oldest Rock Etchings Ever Found In North America, Dating Back At Least 10,000 Years [STUDY]

By Josh Lieberman on August 15, 2013 5:12 PM EDT

petroglyph
Petroglyphs found in the dried-up Winnemucca Lake in Nevada are the oldest rock etchings in North America, a new study says. (Photo: Reuters)

Petroglyphs found etched into boulders in a dried-up lake in Nevada are the oldest rock carvings ever found in North America, a new study says.

The petroglyphs, which depict what appear to be trees, leaves and artistic oval shapes, are located at the Winnemucca Lake petroglyph site, about 35 miles northeast of Reno. While the petroglyphs have always been known to be old, new research dates the rock art as far back 10,500 to 14,800 years ago. That means they may have been made by some of the first people to live in the New World.

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The petroglyphs study is the work of Larry Benson a geologist from the University of Colorado Boulder. Benson and his team performed radiocarbon dating on the rock etchings, starting by determining at what point the petroglyph-etched boulders were above the water line. The level of carbonate on the rocks, left by the now-nonexistent lake water, was the key to determining the age. From the carbonate levels, in addition to sediment samples, Benson and his team pegged the petroglyphs in that the 10,500 to 14,800 years old range.

"Prior to our study, archaeologists had suggested these petroglyphs were extremely old," said Benson. "Whether they turn out to be as old as 14,800 years ago or as recent as 10,500 years ago, they are still the oldest petroglyphs that have been dated in North America."

Before the dating of the Winnemucca Lake petroglyphs, the oldest-known rock art in North America was the Long Lake etchings of central Oregon, which are at least 6,700 years old. Benson said that the Long Lake etchings have similar features with the Winnemucca Lake petroglyphs.

But what Benson and his colleagues don't know, however, is why the petroglyphs were created in the first place.

"We have no idea what they mean," Benson said.  "But I think they are absolutely beautiful symbols. Some look like multiple connected sets of diamonds, and some look like trees, or veins in a leaf. There are few petroglyphs in the American Southwest that are as deeply carved as these, and few that have the same sense of size."

The study will be published in the December 2013 Journal of Archaeological Science.

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