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12 September 2003
30,000-year-old carving might be work of Neanderthals

Intricate ivory carvings said to be the oldest known examples of figurative art have been uncovered in a cave in southwestern Germany. The artefacts - including a figurine depicting a Lowenmensch ('lion man') - have been carbon-dated to around 30,000 years ago, when some of the earliest known relatives of modern humans populated Europe. Discovered last year by a team led by US archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen in Germany, at the Hohle Fels cave near Ulm, the objects include figures depicting a horse and a bird.
     Conard says he thinks that the figures are older than a previously discovered Lowenmensch, fragments of which were found by German archaeologists in 1939 near Vogelherd and dated to about the same time. Until now, those artefacts were accepted as the oldest examples of figurative art in the world. The newly discovered objects are older, Conard argues, as they were uncovered at a lower level in the cave floor's sediments.
     Conard, who has studied human migration from Africa at dig sites stretching from Syria to Germany, believes that humans first arrived in central Europe by following the River Danube west into the area. The figurines add a new dimension to theories about the Danube route, agrees Gamble. "During the Ice Age in Europe, the frozen Danube would be like a highway," he says, "providing a fast track to new environments."
     Fossil remains suggest that modern humans and Neanderthals both lived in Europe during this period. Conard reported that the sedimentary levels in which the ivory carvings were embedded did not include any Neanderthal fossils. But some archaeologists argue that it is possible that the much-maligned Neanderthals produced similar objects.
     Attributing artefacts to one of the two hominid groups remains difficult; Gamble says that the discovery will spur fresh exploration of France, Spain and South Africa, where even older cave drawings - but not figurative art of this age - have been identified.

Source: Nature (4 September 2003)

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