Summer 2014: When Larry Loendorf decided to hunt for ancient rock art on the southern Great Plains, he went about it methodically. Loendorf, an archaeologist with Sacred Sites Research in Albuquerque, New Mexico, made a list of sites containing lots of projectile points and other Paleo-Indian artifacts dating back many thousands of years. Then he narrowed the locations to those containing outcrops of basalt, a hard black volcanic rock that can withstand weathering and thus preserve images that were carved or pecked into it. That put Loendorf along the Colorado-New Mexico border, near the towns of Trinidad and Raton. Finally, he hiked through the rocks, looking for images of mammoths and other Pleistocene beasts.
Loendorf never found any mammoth art, but in 2006, at the Piñon Canyon Maneuver site in southeastern Colorado, his team discovered several petroglyphs that were so heavily coated with a substance known as rock varnish that they were nearly as black as the basalt itself. That suggested the images, having been exposed to the elements for a long time, were very old.
The blackened petroglyphs seemed to have been pecked into the rock over an even older artwork consisting of incised lines, zigzags, and other abstract designs. “I’ve found it in more places now, not just southeastern Colorado, and it’s always the oldest, everywhere I find it on the rocks,” said Loendorf. “I don’t know what they are, and I don’t know why they aren’t mammoths.”
The incised patterns remind him of geometric designs carved into more than 120 small cobbles from the Gault site in central Texas. Some of the Gault stones come from sediments dated to more than 13,000 years ago. That makes them possibly the oldest undisputed art in North America.
Just a few decades ago, it would have been unthinkable to suggest that American art could be older than about 13,000 years. That’s the time when Clovis-style projectile points began to appear across the landscape, evidence of what was once thought to be the initial peopling of the Americas. But subsequently other evidence has been discovered that indicates humans arrived on the continent earlier than that, some archaeologists are looking beyond stone points and tools to better understand the first Americans.