Archaeologists Discover Ancient Bird Figurine in China

Photograph and 3D μ-CT reconstitution of the miniature bird figurine discovered at Lingjing (Henan Province, China), dated to 13 500 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Francesco d’Errico and Luc Doyon)

(CN) — Archaeologists recently discovered the oldest known instance of East Asian three-dimensional art while excavating a spoil heap from a well dug in Lingjing, Henan, China.

A team led by Zhanyang Li of Shandong University found a small bird figurine in exceptional condition. Carved from a heat-blackened piece of mammal bone, the figurine is estimated to be 13,500 years old based on radiocarbon dating, according to a new study published Wednesday in the scientific journal PLOS One.

The carving appears to be a passerine — a common songbird — despite its lack of intricate detail owing to the tools and techniques of the time. It stands 12.5 mm high atop a small rectangular base of 5.1 mm in width and 19.2 mm in length.

“It pushes back the origin of avian representations in Chinese art by 8,500 years and identifies a potential link between Chinese Neolithic art and its Palaeolithic origins,” said study co-author Luc Doyon of the University of Montreal. “We were definitely struck by this technological feat and by the beauty of the object.”

Symbolic thought — abstract ideas not necessary for the survival of a species — is among the major turning points in history and enabled the creation of art, music, language and similar concepts essential to the formation of early cultures.

“Multiple evidence now demonstrates that behaviors generally associated with symbolic thought, such as producing abstract drawings and engravings, using pigments, wearing personal ornaments and performing complex mortuary practices, are three to ten times older than what was acknowledged two decades ago,” the study’s authors noted.

“It is also becoming clear that these practices emerged gradually among both African Middle Stone Age populations and the so-called archaic populations living in Europe and Asia,” they added.

Figurines made of mammoth ivory carved into the shape of humans and animals are the earliest three-dimensional representations of this kind on record, dating to around 40,000 years ago in Germany.

The paleolithic site of Lingjing is an open-air archaeological site first uncovered in 1965. It was excavated yearly from 2005 to 2018 and has hosted numerous finds in recent years. In 2006, Li and his team discovered a set of carefully engraved bone fragments dyed with a natural pigment called ocher. Dating back 115,000 years, the fragments are thought to be left by the Denisovans, a group closely related to both modern humans and Neanderthals.

The Lingjing excavation identified 11 stratified archaeological layers ranging in age from around 2,500-120,000 years old. Seven of these contain archaeological remains, while four are sterile.

Layers one through four represent the Holocene period, which includes the modern era, and contain assorted pottery sherds with decorations dating them from the Shang-Zhou Bronze Age (around 2,500–4,000 years old) to the Yang-shao Neolithic (around 5,000–6,500 years old). Layer five, where the bird figurine was found in a spoil heap, contains artifacts ranging from the Younger Dryas (around 12,000 years old) to the Last Glacial Maximum (around 20,000 years old). Layers six through nine are sterile, while layers 10 and 11 range from the early late Pleistocene (99,000–118,000 years old) and contain stone artifacts, animal remains, two partial human skulls and the engraved and dyed bone fragments.

The figurine was found strewn among other artifacts such as quartz tools, pottery sherds, an ostrich eggshell pendant, animal remains and a bone fragment found to have been worked with the same technique as the figurine.

No Neolithic or Bronze age artifacts were discovered in the spoil heap containing the figurine, lending credence to the age determined by Li and his colleagues, while layers one through four did not contain any remains from the Paleolithic age. Thus, it is unlikely that artifacts from these layers became intermixed or that the figurine originated in one of the outermost layers.

To further support this, the authors show that the more recent pottery sherds found in layers one through four display greater detail than those from layer five, with layer five containing a crude and undecorated style one would expect of pottery from the Chinese Upper Paleolithic era.

“There is often an unexpected aspect in every archaeological research. Perhaps the most striking one in this case was the level of skill displayed by the Palaeolithic artist,” Doyon said. “Our microscopic analyses demonstrate he/she chose a variety of stone tools and alternated between four techniques to achieve a proportionate, recognizable and stable representation of a standing passerine.”

The figurine and its associated artifacts have been curated at the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, China.

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