While researchers in northern Colorado dig up the bones of giant Ice Age mammoths (see gallery), others nearby in southeastern Utah are looking at a very different record of these extinct creatures.

High on a cliff overlooking the floodplain of the San Juan River, rock art specialists Ekkehart Malotki and Henry Wallace have examined several highly stylized images carved into the rock face including what they believe to be the first example of prehistoric Native American rock art to show a mammoth. While such images are common in the caves of Europe, they are surprisingly unknown in the New World.

© Ekkehart MalotkiThis image from 15 feet up a cliff face in southeastern Utah shows two overlapping engravings, including one interpreted by researchers as a mammoth.
To be sure, many other American mammoth images have surfaced in the past two centuries, but until recently all had either disappeared or been shown to be forgeries. In 2009 however a bone from Vero Beach, Florida surfaced with a detailed engraving of a mammoth, and several tests and expert opinions have so far supported its authenticity. Here too though, further tests are needed before a final verdict is reached. (Read more about the Vero Beach mammoth.)

Well aware of this history of promise and disappointment, Malotki and Wallace set out to verify this most recent find.

Is It Really Old?

Using a simple hand lens, they examined the engraving for evidence of recent creation or alteration. Their first conclusion was that there was no evidence that the engraving was made by modern metal tools, since there were no sharp edges or metal shavings to be seen. The next was that the weathering of the engraved lines and the amount of repatination (changes to the color of an exposed rock surface) were greater than those observed on other nearby carvings from periods of history more recent than the Ice Age, leading them to conclude that this carving really is of very ancient origin.

Convinced that the image is not a forgery, they then set out to confirm that it also isn't an accident.

Is It Really a Mammoth?

Anyone familiar with finding animal shapes in the clouds knows that you can often pick out a picture where none was intended. Awkwardly misinterpreting the identity of images in a proud child's drawing can teach a similar lesson. In the case of the San Juan River mammoth, Malotki and Wallace found several key distinguishing marks that convinced them the artist truly intended this image to portray a mammoth.

In the image below, in purple at the lower left, they first point out the high dome-shaped head, two curved tusks, and long trunk. Next they draw attention to a smaller detail, that of two elongated "fingers" at the end of the trunk. This feature is greatly diminished in living African and Asian elephants, but European cave art shows it as a common and pronounced feature among mammoths of the Ice Age.

© Ekkehart MalotkiIn the image above, tracings highlight the mammoth in purple, and another animal in blue identified by the researchers as possibly a bison.
The Two-Pronged Defense

This clear detail in the San Juan River engraving is an appropriately two-pronged defense for authenticity to the researchers. They see it not only as evidence that that the image is not accidental, but also that it's not a crude forgery, since most people do not think "trunk with a finger and thumb" when thinking of a mammoth.

The researchers make one final argument as well. Most modern forgeries have been stand-alone, single images. The San Juan River mammoth is just one image on a panel of several engravings, all showing a similar style and comparable weathering, indicating they were all made about the same time. Malotki and Wallace have also now announced the identification of another mammoth in the same panel, to be described officially in a paper later this year.

Ugly Duckling Shows Potential

North American art from Alaska to the Caribbean has many faces, and few of them look like anything found in the caves of France or Spain. With this new image as an example of how mammoths may have been represented by prehistoric artists, researchers in the region have something new to be looking for when examining rock art. In a field plagued with exquisite artifacts that turn out to be hoaxes, there's a chance that this ugly duckling of an engraving could open up researchers' eyes to reveal swans that have been there all along.

Andrew Howley is a senior producer for National Geographic Digital Media. He manages and edits the home pages of nationalgeographic.com and National Geographic Daily News, and contributes largely to the Society's Facebook page, which has more than 4.6 million followers. He studied anthropology with a focus on archaeology at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.