Two scuba divers were gliding over the bottom of Lake Michigan, scouting for a series of old boat wrecks. To aid them in their search, Dr. Mark Holley, a professor of underwater archaeology at Northwestern Michigan College (Traverse City), and Greg MacMaster, president of the Grand Traverse Bay Underwater Preserve Council, were using a new, high-tech sonar device. During the previous few weeks, the Kongsberg-Mesotech MS 1000 had pinpointed the Tramp (a ship that went down in 1974), a Civil War-era pier, and a mid-19th century buggy. But what they discovered in late June 2007 was older—much older—and had escaped the notice of the latest electronic equipment.
About forty feet beneath the surface, Dr. Holly noticed what appeared to be a deliberate formation of large boulders of similar dimensions arranged in an orderly circle on the flat, sandy lake floor otherwise strewn with algae and zebra mussels. Nearby stood a row of variously sized stones laid out in a straight line. “It appears the rocks have been manipulated by man,” Dr. Holly declared. “That could indicate human manipulation, although it’s unclear,” said Rob Houston, a geology instructor who dove on the site later.
MacMaster closely examined a granite rock about thirty-eight inches tall and fifty-four inches long located outside the circle to find its exterior emblazoned with what appeared to be a man-made image. “We couldn’t believe what we were looking at,” he said.
Returning to Traverse City, they engaged the services of a professional underwater photographer. “I took the pictures on the second dive,” Chris Doyal recalled. “He (Dr. Holly) wasn’t sure what it was but thought it was worth documenting.” The divers were amazed to behold the representation of a massive back, hump, head, trunk, tusk, triangular shaped ear and stumpy legs of a great beast with a spear in its side. “It wasn’t until Mark stared at the photos,” Doyal said, “that the mastodon image came to him.”
Since its discovery two years ago, the engraving has been at the center of a controversy between scholars who insist it is an example of prehistoric rock art and skeptics arguing that the image only coincidentally resembles what it appears to show, because mastodons ranged through southern Michigan, not northern areas of the same state.
Mastodons are often identified in the public mind with woolly mammoths, but the two animals were quite distinct from each other; the former were browsers, while mammoths were grazers. The skulls of mastodons were larger and flatter, their skeletons more robust and stocky. They stood an average of six feet at the shoulder, with almost vertical ivory tusks more than fifteen-feet long—again differing from the mammoths, with their curved tusks.
These characteristic features were employed to break branches while foraging for food among the ice age spruce forests of the eastern United States and used in mating contests during spring and summer months. Some tusks have been found with gouges, splinters, and grooves, signs of male combat.
After their first appearance nearly four million years ago, mastodons spread widely over Eurasia and into North America, where their bones are scientifically classified as the remnants of Mammut americanum. Mastodon fossils occur in England, Germany, the Netherlands, Romania, and northern Greece, sometimes with fur samples still attached. In the United States and Canada, they have been excavated from the Olympia Peninsula of Washington at a location known as the Manis Mastodon Site; Stewiacke, in Nova Scotia; Kentucky’s Big Bone Lick State Park, and the Kimmswick Bone Bed in Missouri, together with finds in New York state, Wisconsin (Richland County); LaGrange, Texas; southern Louisiana; Johnstown, Ohio; Alaska; Florida; California; and north of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Skeletal remains have been found as far south as Mexico and even Honduras.
Some of the most remarkable examples were recovered from two hundred miles out in the Atlantic Ocean off the northeastern coast of the U.S. When sea levels were substantially lower than they are today, the beasts migrated across formerly dry land now covered by water depths of seven fathoms or more.
The mastodons were thought to have disappeared along with other Pleistocene mega fauna about ten thousand years before present during a great extinction event still not properly understood. This assumption was dispelled when some of their remains were radio-carbon dated to 5,200 B.C., 4,150 B.C., and 4,150 B.C. Interestingly, all of these more recent skeletons came to light in Michigan (Seneca, Washtenaw, and Lapeer, respectively), the same state where the sunken petroglyph was discovered. Another bone cache dated to 5,140 B.C. was unearthed in Utah.
Do such later finds help to date the creation of Lake Michigan’s underwater rock art? Probably not. It had to have been executed at a time when lake levels were at least forty feet lower than at present; in other words, at the close of the last ice age, twelve thousand to ten thousand years ago.
While the cause or causes of mastodon extinction have not been positively identified, some studies suggest that a tuberculosis pandemic was at least partially responsible. The main culprits, however, were more likely Archaeo-Indian hunters, who found the lumbering paleo-pachyderms easy prey and an abundant source of high-protein meat.
If Dr. Holly’s discovery is the first underwater discovery of its kind, three other examples of prehistoric American art also depict these extinct animals. The earliest specimen was recovered during 1864 from a peat bog near a railroad station in Holly Oak, northern Delaware. It was described in a 1976 issue of Science magazine (192:756-761) as “a pendant carved from a fossil welk shell, into which was incised the image of a woolly mammoth.” The roughly delta-shaped object is about two inches on its wide side and four inches long. Science writers John C. Craft and Ronald A. Thomas reported: “Clifford Irving and his colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution re-examined the carving on the surface of the shell and reached the conclusion that the incisions show the same stages of weathering as the shell surface itself. Most who have examined the Holly Oak specimen ‘indicated that they think this object is legitimate, and do not see any possibility of even suggesting the remote conception that it is a fake.’ ”
Eight years after the Holy Oak artifact was found, a farm boy working his fields near Doylestown, Pennsylvania, accidentally ploughed up a five-inch-long stone covered with strange symbols on one side. On the other was a “a scene which could only be interpreted as a pictographic account of an Indian encounter with a mammoth,” as described in a 1972 NEARA Newsletter article (7:16-18) by Richard L. Greene. He wrote that the Lenape Stone, named “after a local branch of the Delaware Indians,” was investigated and deemed authentic by the Buck County Historical Society spokesman, Henry C. Mercer: “His reputation as a researcher is well established today for his studies on colonial firebacks (The Bible in Iron), on Ancient Carpenters’ Tools (the standard work in this field), and various subjects related in early American architecture.”
Greene compared the apparent representation of lightning (zigzag lines) in the Lenape Stone’s hunting scene with Native American oral traditions of “the Great Elk.” Also remembered as the “Father of Oxen,” it was a monster hunted long ago, according to Delaware, Iroquois, Osage, and Wyandot legend, with the assistance of thunderbolts hurled by the Great Spirit.
Another specimen in Utah was found by a resident of Moab “some three miles down the Colorado Canyon from that town,” according to a 1935 article in Scientific Monthly (41:378-379): “That this carving is designed to be an elephant or mastodon is evident. It represents a good deal of work on the part of the primitive artist, for the figure, from the end of his very ‘pachydermous’ tail to the tip of his trunk, is almost two feet long, and appears to have been made by a painstaking method of chipping the whole figure from the sold rock wall with a blunt pick, chisel, or similar tool. It is a recessed or etched figure, composed of closely spaced ‘pock marks.’ ” A precise date for the Moab pictoglyph proved elusive, but its authenticity is probable.
Although the precise location of the Traverse Bay mastodon pictoglyph is being kept secret for fear of potential vandalism, its discovery was made somewhere within the thirty-mile-long Traverse Bay, less than half-a-mile from shore. Michigan features only two other, authentically prehistoric petroglyph sites. They appear on an isolated rock in the Northern Peninsula, and in the middle of the “Thumb” area of the state. Fires sweeping through the area in 1881 revealed the previously overgrown Sanilac Petroglyphs.
Since then, they have been confidently dated, thanks to the relatively friable sandstone into which they were carved, to about one thousand years ago. The several dozen images cover a 1,000-square-foot rock in Sanilac County, and depict spirals, straight lines, handprints, birds in flight, and anthropomorphic stick figures. All are in danger of wind erosion, and many are faded almost beyond recognition.
Of particular interest is the representation of an archer wielding bow and arrow, while wearing a uniquely pointed or conical headgear unlike anything attributable to Native American tribal peoples. He is joined by dog-like quadrupeds and feline creatures that may illustrate local Menomonee Indian myths of a “water cat” monster.
If the Traverse Bay image is authentic rock art, it is an extraordinary discovery on several counts. Dated to the close of the Pleistocene Epoch, it may be the oldest petroglyph in all the Americas. No less remarkable, the earliest stone circles appeared in Western Europe three thousand years later. Moreover, the only such formations found in America north of the Rio Grande River are the so-called “Medicine Wheels” at Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest, in southeastern Saskatchewan, and perhaps half-a-dozen other locations in and near the Rocky Mountains. Many if notall of these authentically pre-Columbian sites are aligned with various celestial phenomena: solstices, equinoxes, particular positions of various planets or constellations, etc. It has not yet been determined if the stone circle in the waters of Traverse Bay is similarly astronomical in its orientations.
Several stonewalls dating back to pre-Columbian times have been found in California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky, although the precise age and identity of their builders have never been ascertained. Even so, these dry-land examples do not date back to the end of the last ice age, as does the stone row found by Dr. Holly and Greg MacMaster. They theorize it long ago marked the shoreline, standing at the water’s edge some ten thousand years ago.
At that time, artists on the other side of the world were busily engaged in the creation of very similar rock art. At the same time Lake Michigan’s mastodon petroglyph was being engraved, a major cultural surge known as the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, took place when northwestern Europe was resettled after the Last Glacial Maximum by extraordinarily aesthetic invaders. These Upper Paleolithic people were named after La Madeleine, a Vézère Valley rock-shelter in the French Dordogne.
The Magdalenians first appeared on the shores of Normandy, as though arriving from the sea, then spread in all directions from Portugal to Poland. Unlike earlier Europeans, they additionally dwelt in tents, manufactured superior flint tools, worked both utilitarian and art forms in bone, antler and ivory, and sculpted stone figurines of passing skill.
But their most splendid, surviving achievement is a stupendous cave-art, as preserved at such subterranean galleries as Lascaux in France or Spain’s Altamira. Preferred subject matter comprised the great animals with which they were intimately familiar—horses, bulls, bison, stags, aurochs, etc. In fact, Lake Michigan’s sunken petroglyph seems less stylistically compatible with the later stick figures made by Plains Indians, as found in Sanilac County, than among its contemporaneous Magdalenian artworks in Europe.
Although conventional scholars deny the Magdalenians ever engaged in maritime activities of any kind, and nothing in their archaeological record suggests sea-faring capabilities, anthropologists nonetheless know that an anomalous, Caucasian people inhabited North America just when Lake Michigan’s mastodon petroglyph was being carved. The so-called Kennewick Man, whose well-preserved skeleton was accidentally found on a bank of Washington State’s Columbia River in 1996, was one of nearly a dozen, racially related individuals found as far as Nevada and North Dakota, most of them dated from nine thousand to eleven thousand years ago.
Could they have belonged to the same post-glacial Europeans who created Traverse Bay’s Magdalenian-like rock art? If so, the real prehistory of our continent is radically different from mainstream versions of Siberians trekking across a theoretical land bridge into Alaska.
From whence came Western Europe’s Mesolithic cave-painters is no less mysterious than Kennewick Man’s origins, although abrupt Magdalenian beginnings along the French Atlantic coast certainly suggest the arrival of maritime culture bearers. So too, Kennewick Man’s people are inferred sea-farers, since they did not reach the shores of the Pacific Northwest by wandering over some alleged land bridge. To be sure, far more has been lost of either his world or that of the Middle Stone Age than still survives. Ten thousand-year-old vessels, however ocean-going they may have been, were far more perishable than rock art hidden away in deep caves.
Pleistocene men and women were modern human beings no less intelligent than ourselves, and very probably more keenly aware of their natural surroundings. Given the radical, even violent, changes in worldwide sealevels at the close of the last ice age, when sometimes vast tracks of dry land were catastrophically inundated, our ancestors conceivably arose to such environmental challenges with the innovation of transoceanic vessels of the kind that carried them away to places of refuge as far afield as Washington State or the pre-flood shores of Lake Michigan.
Indeed, that vast body of fresh water hides additional, physical evidence to support the archaeological authenticity of Dr. Holly’s petroglyph. Like him, but eighteen years earlier, salvage divers made a serendipitous discovery of their own in Lake Michigan when using sonar to search for aircraft manned by student pilots who crashed and sank in the waters off Chicago while learning how to land on aircraft carriers during World War II.
In a cogent 1989 discovery, divers located the first and so far only sunken forest about fifteen miles east-southeast from the city’s Navy Pier, eighty feet beneath the surface. The cluster of some fifty stumps comprises the remains of a grove of trees swamped by rising lake levels about 8,300 years ago. As Chicago Sun-Times reporter, Gary Wisby, stated in his 3 September 2003 article, “Underwater forest remains in peril,” the Olson Site, named after lead diver Alan Olson, features the remains of oak and ash. “One could walk the land—and trees could grow—between what is now Chicago and the state of Michigan,” where and when a petroglyph artist was depicting a hunted mastodon.
The Olson Site’s related discovery proves the southern shores of Lake Michigan were far enough removed from the water’s edge during post-glacial times to simultaneously accommodate both its oak-ash forest and controversial rock art. Ironically, perhaps, the extinct animal depicted is better known to us than the human who portrayed it.