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Vero Beach residents get fi rst peek at Vero Man fossil
BY SANDRA RAWLS - COLUMNIST (Week of December 3, 2009)

For the first time, Vero Beach residents are going to have a chance to see the work of the area’s oldest, most signifi cant and least understood artist, the prehistoric human who drew a striding tusked elephant on the bone of a mammal 12,000 years ago.

In the last week in February, the Vero Beach Museum of Art plans to display the extraordinarily rare etched fossil bone, found in north Vero Beach by amateur fossil hunter James Kennedy.

Meanwhile, the Executive Committee of the Cultural Council of Indian River County will take up the question of possible support for the efforts of Barbara Purdy, Ph.D., a retired University of Florida anthropology professor, to raise funds for excavation of the famous Vero Man fossil site near where the bone was found. That meeting is scheduled for Dec. 10. Purdy considers the site “one of the most important fossil sites in the U.S.”

Vero Beach Museum of Art Executive Director Cindy Gedeon announced the museum’s plans to publicly display the bone this winter.

“It came from Vero Beach, and local people and school children should have a chance to see it,” she said.

The news came at an invited gathering of local history and art buffs, who were allowed to preview the now world-renowned bone for the fi rst time in a special case at the home of antiques dealer and auctioneer Ron Rennick.

Purdy and another University of Florida professor, Kevin Jones, Ph.D., joined guests at the Rennick home to answer questions about the recently discovered fossil bone inscribed with what is being called the “rarest art work in North America.” The scientists told the guests of still more test results confi rming the authenticity of the etched bone.

The clear image of a moving elephant with big tusks dazzled the eyes of the main library’s Pam Cooper, the Audubon Society’s Jens Tripson, County Commissioner Peter O’Bryan, Richard Baker, Ph.D., of the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory, historian Ruth Stanbridge, and an assortment of other interested locals. A PBS producer from Orlando, Tom Lowe, was also on hand, interested in the fossils of Vero Beach for a television program.

“I think everyone was just stunned by the carving,” says Stanbridge. “The whole thing was very convincing. It was obvious when you saw it and understood all the science that’s been done, this is the real thing, not something somehow scratched on there.”

The elephant carving has brought attention back to the famous site in the middle of town where human bones and skulls were found with extinct mammal bones in 1915. On county property, the site where Vero Man was discovered faces increased encroachment from water plant projects and others, and remains a popular place to hunt artifacts.

Purdy spoke emphatically about the need to excavate properly the old site that continues to yield fossils and other artifacts. It is part of the old streambed of Van Valkenburg creek and close to private land where Kennedy found the bone with a carving obscured under layers of dirt.

“The citizens of this county should not let this astonishing and important site be further compromised or destroyed entirely. It is among the most important fossil sites in the United States,” Purdy said.

She also emphasized the impact the new discovery has on interpretations of the original site that were controversial for years.

“The discovery of this carving adds further evidence the assessment of state geologist James Sellards almost 100 years ago was certainly correct, that humans and extinct mammals lived here at the same time. That find was not a case of mixed layers.”

She pointed out other marks on Kennedy’s bone also appear to be man-made and that other carvings must certainly have existed. She has been attempting to raise $100,000 for a university excavation at the old site where the human bones were found.

A new paper submitted to the Journal of Archeological Science by Jones and Purdy will contain additional data not previously published concerning the cuts that form the carving.

Rennick’s guests were also given a chance to hear from Kennedy. A fossil hunter since age 16, he recounted his fi rst fi nds as a teenager, and how he planned to sell the now-famous bone along with others sitting in a box under the kitchen sink at the local flea market. “I was about to put it with the others when I saw the carving. I didn’t know what I had.”

Kennedy has said he plans to auction the artifact next spring through Rennick, a licensed auctioneer. Rennick has established a website, www., though further details have not been made known.

Purdy answered guests’ questions related to pre-historic Indian River County and local fossil history. The retired UF professor emerita of anthropology and curator of archeology is an authority on early man in Florida and was the original investigator into the bone and carving. “The only other thing ever found in the Americas similar to this was a carving from Mexico that disappeared before being authenticated,” she said.

Books written by Purdy or Jones were arrayed around a large table in the main room of Rennick’s residence, as visitors peered through the glass top of a nearby display case sitting on an antique side table. With the aid of a hand-held light that further highlighted the case’s interior, they got a good look at the bone containing the only authenticated carving of an extinct animal ever discovered on this continent.

The scientists say the more extensive results from Scanning Electron Microscope and Energy Dispersive X-ray spectroscopy analysis further eliminate any chance the cuts made to create the carving are younger than the surface of the ancient relic. They also show no compounds like specialized polymers were used to make the inside and outside of the cuts seem more uniform, a common trick of forgers.

Jones, a specialist in silicon research, is head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at UF. He described the results of work on the bone found by local fossil hunter James Kennedy.

Any other institution re-examining the bone would be doing the exact type of work they have already done, Jones said, clearly excited by their results. “There is no current technology that can answer questions about the carving that we have not addressed,” he said. “When something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, at some point you have to say what it is.”

Lowe, CEO of Eagle Productions of Orlando, is a television producer who has made several PBS programs based in Florida, the most recent of which, “Feather Wars,” is scheduled for release next year.

After visiting Rennick’s home, he hopes to fi nd corporate or other funding to create a program about the old fossil site in Vero Beach, Vero Man, and the new carving.

“This is an incredible story,” Lowe says. “The whole country needs to hear about it.”