Scientists in Brazil announced Tuesday they've discovered rock engravings that could be up to 12,000 years old, meaning people may have settled the Americas up to 4,000 years earlier than previously thought.
Researchers from the University of Sao Paulo say the anthropomorphic figure "could be the oldest figurative petroglyph ever found in the New World" and called it the "earliest indisputable testimony of rock art in the Americas."
The figure was found in Brazil's Lapa do Santo rock shelter, about 300 miles north of Rio de Janeiro. The researchers say the nearly foot-long figure was "pecked in the bedrock," and the human-like figure has "tri-digits, a "C"-like head, and an oversized phallus."
"When we found it, it was a great surprise," Danilo Bernardo, one of the archaeologists, wrote in an E-mail. "During our excavations, we never attempted to look for any rock art."
The Lapa do Santo carving wildly varies from art previously discovered in Argentina and Brazil, leading researchers to believe that humans may have inhabited the area before the Clovis people, who were previously believed to be the earliest people living in the Western Hemisphere, about 11,500 years ago.
"This variability was impossible to be reached in a short span of time, suggesting the idea that the peopling of the New World occurred prior to the antiquity recognized by the Clovis model," Bernardo writes. He believes that the people who made the Lapa do Santo carving came to America through the Bering Strait land bridge as many as 15,000 years ago.
The Brazilian researchers say the discovery is important because it shows early people in the Americas were more sophisticated than previously thought. These early people were "not restricted to stone tools and subsistence," but also had a "symbolic dimension," the researchers write. Ancient art in the Americas is extremely rare and is generally not as old as ancient European or African art. In June, researchers said a bone found in Florida featuring a carved image of a mastodon could have been 13,000 years old. Researchers have also found evidence of early engraving in South Africa from as early at 25,500 B.C.
One of the earliest examples of figurative art is a sculpture made out of a wooly mammoth tusk, known as the "Venus of Hohle Fels." Discovered in Germany in 2008, it is believed to be up to 40,000 years old.