Current Events in Earth Science
Ancient Nevada Petroglyphs

Current Events in Earth Science: Archaeologists have recently been able to determine that petroglyphs at ancient Pyramid Lake were created by people living in the area over 10,000 years ago. Petroglyphs are carvings in rocks created by people.

The carvings were created by people scratching the rocks with some instrument that created indentations in the rock. The rocks are similar to petroglyphs found near Long Lake in Oregon near Klamath Falls and the California border.

Ancient Nevada Petroglyphs, Photo by Larry Benson, University of Colorado

Ancient Nevada Petroglyphs
Photo by Larry Benson, University of Colorado

The petroglyphs at Pyramid Lake have been known by archaeologists for a number of years but they did not know how long ago they were carved into the rocks. Larry Benson a former geochemist for the USGS learned about the carving over ten years ago.

He was given permission to test the rocks by the Paiute Indians whose reservation land contains the rocks. Benson used radiocarbon testing to date the age of the rocks underneath the petroglyphs. They are approximately 14,800 years ago.

The next mystery that need to be solved was how long ago the petroglyphs were carved into the rocks. Benson saw that the carvings had a thin carbonate layer on top of the petroglyphs that made them lighter colored than the surrounding rocks.

Calcite is an example of a carbonate mineral that typically dissolves in water and leaves a white residue when the water evaporates. When inland lakes dry up they leave behind layers of chemicals including calcite, a carbonate mineral. As Pyramid Lake dried up it left behind a layer of carbonate minerals on top of the petroglyphs.

Benson used his expertise as a paleoclimatologist to determine that the carbonate layers had to been created during a dry period when the lake water would have evaporated after two very wet periods. Testing the lake bottom and after many years of asking Benson was given permission to test the rocks near the petroglyphs by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.

This gave him two times in the past when the lake dried up and would have given the people time to carve the images. Although Benson is not able, at this time, to give an exact date of the carvings it is known they are the oldest carvings ever discovered on the North American continent.

The artwork includes circles, diamonds, and other geometric figures that are at least 10,300 years old and may be as much as 14,800 years old. The carvings are found on a “heap” of sandstone boulders in the desert. Nearly every surface of the boulders are covered with these geometric designs.

The deep carved symbols are sometimes an inch in depth and are larger than other petroglyphs found elsewhere in North America. Scientists speculate the symbols might be heavenly bodies such as the moon, sun and even the Milky Way.


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