Vatican City (CBS) -- Art historians have discovered what they believe is the oldest depictions of native North American Indians. What makes the find even more remarkable is where the painted figures were discovered: the Vatican.
Deep within the Vatican, on the upper wall of the oldest papal apartments preserved with their original decorations, is a remarkable find: the oldest known depictions of native North Americans.
The frescos were painted by the artist known as Pinturicchio in 1494 barely two years after Christopher Columbus returned from his first voyage of discovery. Vatican art historian Prof. Arnold Nesselrath says, "We think they are Taino which are a tribe in the Caribbean."
The images of naked men wearing feathers and apparently dancing match descriptions from a report by Columbus after his return.
A copy of his report reached the Vatican and it is thought that Pope Alexander VI portrayed kneeling beside the risen Christ ordered Pinturicchio to include them in the painting. Nesselrath says, "Probably he had not very precise records. They had been described and there may have been drawings that were done by some sailor who had not artistic skills."
What is known as "The Room of the Mysteries", because its decoration depicts the stages in the life of Christ, has been part of the regular Vatican tourism route for a century but its unique feature was only noticed during the latest cleaning. Nesselrath says, "Of course the figures have been seen before, just nobody had recognized them. Whenever you look at things with a fresh eye you see different things from what you predecessor saw."
As significant as the paintings are, so far the museum guides haven't seen fit to turn tourist eyes in their direction .so the tiny figures which were lost for so long to history remain unremarked amid the welter of art unless of course you do what Columbus did and go looking.