51,000-Year-Old Deer Bone Could Be One Of The First Artworks Ever Made

By Alexa Heah, 08 Jul 2021

Image via Nature Ecology & Evolution (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

This week, a team of German researchers published a paper in the Nature Ecology & Evolution journal featuring a rare discovery: a deer bone found in a cave inscribed with deep, slanting lines that could possibly be a work of art created by Neanderthals.

The artifact, which has been identified as a toe bone belonging to a deer, was first discovered in 2019 at the Unicorn Cave in West Harz, approximately 150 miles southwest of Berlin, Germany. Tests conducted thereafter have suggested that the artifact could be over 51,000 years old.

The research team posited that the engraved bone “demonstrates that conceptual imagination, as a prerequisite to compose lines into a coherent design, was present in Neanderthals [early humans who died out around 40,000 years ago].”

It could even suggest “the start of culture, the start of abstract thinking, the birth of art,” Thomas Terberger, a prehistoric archaeologist at the University of Göttingen, told National Geographic.

According to The Art Newspaper, the researchers have determined that the bone is not a pendant, resembling more of a standalone sculpture of sorts.



“The base of the phalanx [bone] is suitable as a platform on which the item stands upright, with the chevrons [marks] pointing upwards,” the paper said.

Another reason this discovery is so significant is because it disrupts the common notion that Neanderthals were incapable of creating art. The bone, with its engravings, show that “Neanderthal’s awareness of symbolic meaning is very likely,” according to the researchers.

Aside from uncovering what is possibly one of the oldest art pieces in history, the researchers have also paved the way for new theories about Neanderthals and their penchant for the aesthetics.

Could our ancestors have dabbled in the same artistic pursuits we do now? Hopefully future research will shed more light on the answer.

[via The Art Newspaper, cover image via Nature Ecology & Evolution (CC-BY-SA 3.0)]
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