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19 December 2003
30,000-year-old figurines discovered

Three tiny figurines carved from mammoth tusks have provided fresh evidence that the earliest Europeans were accomplished artist, according to a new study published in the journal Nature. One of the carvings depicts a bird extended in a headlong dive into water; another shows detailed features on the head of large animal, probably a horse; the third is of a character with a human body and a feline head. None is longer than two centimeters.
     The discovery of these small ivory figurines at Hohle Fels Cave, 20 kilometres south of Ulm in southwest Germany, lends support to the notion that modern humans were producing well-rendered art soon after colonizing Europe along routes leading from the Middle East and Africa. The find also bolsters a theory that these and other figures, all carved from mammoth ivory, were used in an early religion in which a shaman was believed capable of moving between the animal and human realms.
     Nicholas Conard, chairman of the department of early prehistory and Quaternary ecology at the University of Tuebingen in Germany and author of the new study, said the carvings and the ample shavings of mammoth ivory found by archaeologists suggest that the figurines were routinely fashioned by modern humans who likely had migrated up the Danube River into Germany.
     Prof Conard and his students had been excavating at the cave for years, sorting through human detritus and animal bones and bits of ivory. One day he drove to the cave at lunch time, and asked: "Anything new?" A student from the Philippines showed him the head of a bird, to match a carved avian body found much earlier. A few moments later, a student from Mexico showed him what looked like the carved body of a half-man, half-lion. "And it was one of those rare instances where, at least to me, even though the piece was very small, and in some respects very modest, it was sitting there in such a way that the light was on it: I immediately recognised it as a lion-man and that I have to say was a bit of a thrill."
     Based on carbon-based dating of the sedimentary layers where the figurines were found, Conard said the horse's head was carved slightly more than 30,000 years ago. The two other figurines were created "well in excess" of 30,000 years ago, he said, perhaps dating back another 5,000 years. Other types of jewelry and ornamentation also have been found, including objects with small holes in them, which have been part of necklaces.
     Archaeologists have long considered the development of figurative art as a key signpost in the evolution of modern human thought. The new carvings found in Germany, as well as more than 20 similar figures previously known from other nearby sites, are widely thought to have been created by modern humans, despite the lack of human remains found in the archaeological deposits. Moreover, the assigned ages rival the famous Grotte Chauvet cave paintings of southern France for the oldest-known examples of figurative art in the world.
     Researchers don't yet know whether modern humans developed their artistic skills before or after colonizing Europe between 40,000 and 35,000 years ago. But separate finds  - ivory beads and flutes made from swan bones among them -  have convinced many scientists that humans possessed surprisingly sophisticated means of artistic expression very early on.
     Anthony Sinclair, a senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool in England, said the bird figurine adds a completely new animal species to the collection of artwork known from this period. And the half-man, half-animal figurine, he said, complements a similar carving found previously at a nearby excavation site, perhaps adding more fodder for arguments that these figures were personal possessions created for shamanism rites.

Source: New Scientist, Newsday (17 December 2003), CNN, The Guardian (18 December 2003)

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