Friday, February 25, 2011


Trampled skull of Bison antiquus with arrow pointing to red painted
zigzag line. httpwww.ou.educasarchsurcountiesharper.htm .

In 1994 a candidate for the title of earliest painting in North America was discovered in northwestern Oklahoma. In 1992, Dick James, a game warden in the Cooper Wildlife Management Area, had shown Oklahoma Archaeological Survey archaeologist Lee Bement a site where large bones (which proved to be bison antiquas) were caving off a sandy bluff near the Beaver River. During that first trip, there were no signs that people had a hand in the deaths of the bison whose bones were eroding from the cliff. However, another trip to the site brought the find of a spear point, left by Folsom hunters more than 10,000 years ago. Since that discovery, a meticulous excavation of the site has uncovered three bison kill episodes.

After the first event of driving the bison into this gully, they took one of the skulls and painted a thunderbolt on it before placing it, nose-first, into the gully where bison from the second drive trampled it. That skull, possibly the oldest painted object ever found in North America, is now on exhibit at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman, OK.

Folsom points from Cooper Site. httpwww.arrowheads.

Bement subsequently described this discovery in his book Bison Hunting at Cooper Site (1999:37). “I was removing dirt from an articulated leg, the bones of which lay across the eye orbits of a skull. As the forehead of this skull was uncovered, a brilliant red zigzag line was exposed. – The zigzag of red stood in stark contrast to the bleached white skull surface and was visible from all areas of the bone bed. To say that there was an instant of incredulous awe does not quite describe that moment of discovery.”

Analysis of the paint has shown that it contains a majority of iron oxides and hydroxides (Bement 1999:51) which give it an intense red not found in the surrounding soil. Concentrations of these minerals are reported found in sandstones and shales in the area (probably in concretions) which were a possible source for the minerals in the paint.

The circumstances of the Folsom artist selecting a skull from the first bison kill, painting the red, zigzag lightning symbol on it, and placing it in a position in the arroyo prior to the bison drive that became the second kill, strongly indicates that this very early example of art played a role in some ritual thought to affect the success of the subsequent hunt. While not exactly rock art, this discovery can shine light on possible uses of early imagery which would include rock art images and symbols, and in any case it can stake a claim toward being the oldest known painting in North America. Additionally, we have to ask; if this example of paint survived more than 10,000 years should we not assume that some examples of pictographs painted in protected places might not have such great age as well?


Bement, Leland C.
1999     Bison Hunting at Cooper Site, Where Lightning Bolts Drew Thundering Herds, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Goins, Charles Robert, and Danny Goble
2006      Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, Fourth Edition, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

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