Human Evolutionary Studies laboratory / University of Sao Paulo
The researchers suspect the petroglyph of the man with the oversized phallus, which they have dubbed "the little horny man," was likely used in fertility rituals.
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updated 2/22/2012 6:43:15 PM ET 2012-02-22T23:43:15

A stick figure man with a giant phallus dubbed "the little horny man" by its discoverers is the oldest rock carving found yet in the Americas, researchers say.

These findings might shed new light on when the New World was first settled, scientists added.

The time frame during which humans first reached the Americas remains hotly debated. One key to settling this controversy would involve uncovering early examples of human artifacts, such as art.

Scientists discovered one ancient sample of such art in a cave named Lapa do Santo in central-eastern Brazil. The region is home to Luzia, the oldest human skeleton found to date in South America.

Lapa do Santo is one of the largest rock shelters excavated yet in the region, a limestone cave covering an area of about 14,000 square feet (1,300 square meters). Here, researchers have found buried human remains, tools made of stone and bone, ash from hearths, and leftovers from meals of fruit and small game.

In 2009, digging about 13 feet (4 meters) below the surface, the scientists found a rock carving or petroglyph of a man packed into the side of the cave. The figure, which appears to be squatting with his arms outstretched, is about 12 inches (30 centimeters) tall from head to feet and about 8 inches (20 centimeters) wide.

"We discovered this petroglyph in the final moments of excavation at the site," said researcher Walter Alves Neves, an archaeologist and biological anthropologist at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil.

The engraving is also depicted with a relatively oversized phallus about 2 inches (5 cm) long, or about as long as the man's left arm.

"We named the figure 'the little horny man,'" Neves said.

"The figure is probably linked to some kind of fertility ritual," Neves told LiveScience.

"There is another site in the same region where you find paintings with men with oversized phalluses, and also pregnant women, and even a parturition (childbirth) scene."

Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies — University of Sao Paulo.
Researchers work on excavating the central area of Lapa do Santo.

Carbon dating and other tests of the sediment covering the petroglyph suggest the engraving dates between 9,000 and 12,000 years old.

This makes it the oldest reliably dated instance of such rock art found yet in the Americas.

When this carving is compared with other examples of early rock art found in South America, it would seem that abstract forms of thinking may have been very diverse back then, which suggests that humans settled the New World relatively early, giving their art time to diversify.

For instance, at one site in Argentina named Cueva de las Manos, paintings of hands predominate, while at another site there, Cueva Epullan Grande, engravings have geometric motifs.

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"It shows that about 11,000 years ago, there was already a very diverse manifestation of rock art in South America, so man probably arrived in the Americas much earlier than normally is accepted," Neves said.

The scientists detailed their findings online Wednesday 22 in the journal PLoS ONE.

Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: Ancient rock art from around the world

  • AP

    Even 15,000 years ago, humans were compelled to decorate the interior walls of their abodes. Back then, in the Stone Age, home was often no more than a cave, but the artwork was sophisticated and sublime. The Altamira Cave in northern Spain contains some of Europe's best known and best preserved Paleolithic rock art, including the painted ceiling shown here. Scholars consider the paintings, primarily of bison and other wildlife, masterpieces of creative genius. Click the "Next" label to see seven more examples of rock art from around the world.

    — By John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Lascaux cave drawings threatened by fungus

    Pierre Andrieu  /  AP

    The famed Lascaux caves in France have been shuttered since 1963, when green algae and mosses began to cover the 15,000- to 17,000 year-old murals of bulls, horses, and other creatures. The deterioration was blamed on chemical reactions with visitors' breath. As a consolation, the government built a replica cavern nearby, which remains a top tourist draw. But the spread of fungus in the original cave hasn't stopped, thanks in part to global warming, researchers said at a recent meeting about the artwork. Ideas to fight the fungus include the use of biocides and an elaborate climate control system.

  • Uranium traces help date oldest rock art in Britain

    Sergio Ripoli

    Rock art in Britain appears to date back at least 12,800 years, according to scientists who used minute traces of radioactive uranium in a limestone crust to date the rock art. The crusts formed over the etchings of bison and other creatures, so the dates set a minimum age for the work. The finding helps round out a picture of Ice Age Ice-Age hunter-gatherers occupying the caves each spring to find horse, reindeer, and other wildlife for meat, hides, and fur. This overdrawn image here shows a stag engraving in the biggest cavern at Creswell Crags.

  • Earliest oil paintings in Afghan cave

    National Research Institute for

    The world's earliest known oil paintings are found in a series of intact - albeit weather-beaten and looter-ravaged - caves in Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley. Archaeologists dated the paintings to the mid-seventh century, which is several hundred years before the painting technique emerged in Europe. The murals depict Buddhas and mythical creatures and were made with what appear to be walnut and poppy-seed oils, scientists say. The site of the paintings is perhaps more infamously known as where the Taliban blew up two giant stone Buddha statues in 2001.

  • South African rock reveals history of the San

    Image: Aerial view of Nyirangongo
    Alexander Joe  /  AFP/Getty Images

    Painted walls and overhangs in South Africa are helping scholars piece together the millennia-long history of the San, a group of hunter-gatherers who became extinct after European colonization in the 19th century. More than 40,000 paintings in 500 rock shelters have been discovered. They depict animals such as the eland - a type of spiral-horned antelope - and hunters and are thought to represent religious beliefs of the San. Researchers hope that by firmly dating the paintings, they can see how the people changed over time.

  • Rock depicts supernova

    John Barentine  /  Apache Point Observatory

    The star symbol right of center in this rock carving may represent the fiery death of an ancient star in the year 1006. If so, it would be the first North American representation of a celestial event, previously known from astronomers' records in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The supernova of 1006 was likely as bright as the quarter moon, according to computer simulations. This piece of rock art was discovered in the White Tank Regional Park outside of Phoenix, Ariz.

  • Rock art under siege in Nevada

    Debra Reid  /  AP File

    Figures and shapes etched into rocks all around Nevada hint at stories of people who roamed the land centuries to millennia ago. But rock art enthusiasts fear vandals and looters will destroy the etchings before scientists have sufficient tools and knowledge to comprehend the historical record. The problem, according to groups mobilizing to protect the ancient artwork, is Nevada's rapid growth, which is putting people much closer to sites such as the petroglyphs shown here in the Pah Rah Mountain Range near Reno.

  • Gas caught between rock and an art place

    Douglas C. Pizac  /  AP

    The more than 10,000 carvings and paintings of bulls, sheep, hunters, the hunted, warriors and wildlife all etched and stroked onto the cliff walls along Utah's Nine Mile Canyon make up what is known as the world's longest art gallery. The rock art dates to between A.D. 700 and 1300 and archaeologists believe it is the creation of the Fremont people, who were the ancestors of modern-day Utes. But the rock isn't the only draw to the remote stretch of Utah: It's also rich in oil and gas. A rush to exploit the natural resources has raised concerns that dust kicked up by industrial truck traffic could harm the artwork.

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