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120,000-year-old bone etchings believed to be among oldest evidence of human use of symbols


While scientists and historians have long surmised that etchings on stones and bones have been used as a form of symbolism dating back as early as the Middle Paleolithic period (250,000-45,000 BCE), findings to support that theory are extremely rare.


120,000-year-old bone etchings believed to be among oldest evidence of human use of symbols
Researchers uncovered the bone fragments while working at the open air site of Nesher Ramla,
which also dates back to the Middle Paleolithic era [Credit Dr. Yossi Zaidner]

A recent discovery by archeologists from the Hebrew University and the University of Haifa alongside a team from the Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France have uncovered evidence of what may be the earliest-known use of symbols. The symbols were found on a bone fragment in the Ramle region in central Israel and are believed to be approximately 120,000 years old.




Remarkably the fragment remained largely intact and the researchers were able to detect six similar etchings on one side of the bone, leading them to believe that they were in the possession of something which held symbolic or spiritual significance. The find, which was recently published in the scientific journal Quaternary International, was discovered in a trove of flint tools and animal bones exposed at a site during archaeological excavations.


Dr. Yossi Zaidner of the Institute of Archeology at Hebrew University says that the site was likely used as a camp or a meeting place for Paleolithic hunters who would then slaughter the animals they caught at that location. The identified bone is believed to have come from an extinct large wild cattle, a species which was very common in the Middle East at that time.


120,000-year-old bone etchings believed to be among oldest evidence of human use of symbols
Photograph of the bone with the engravings in situ [Credit Marion Prévost]

Using three-dimensional imaging, microscopic methods of analysis and experimental reproduction of engravings in the laboratory, the team was able to identify six different engravings ranging from 38 to 42 millimeters in length. Dr. Iris Groman-Yaroslavski from the University of Haifa explained, "Based on our laboratory analysis and discovery of microscopic elements, we were able to surmise that people in prehistoric times used a sharp tool fashioned from flint rock to make the engravings."




The paper's authors stress that their analysis makes it very clear that the engravings were definitely intentionally man made and could not have been the result of animal butchering activities or natural processes over the millennia. They pointed to the fact that the grooves of the engravings discovered are in a clear U-shape and wide and deep enough that they could not have been made by anything other than humans intent on carving lines into the bone.


The analysis was also able to determine that the work was performed by a right-handed craftsman in a single working session.


120,000-year-old bone etchings believed to be among oldest evidence of human use of symbols
Photograph of the bone and the engravings [Credit Marion Prévost]


Ms. Marion Prévost from the Institute of Archeology at Hebrew University says that every indication was that there was a definite message behind what was carved into the bone. "We reject any assumption that these grooves were some sort of inadvertent doodling. That type of artwork wouldn't have seen this level of attention to detail."




So what was the message behind the six lines in the bone? The authors write, "This engraving is very likely an example of symbolic activity and is the oldest known example of this form of messaging that was used in the Levant. We hypothesize that the choice of this particular bone was related to the status of that animal in that hunting community and is indicative of the spiritual connection that the hunters had with the animals they killed."


Dr. Zaidner said, "It is fair to say that we have discovered one of the oldest symbolic engraving ever found on earth- and certainly the oldest in the Levant. This discovery has very important implications for understanding of how symbolic expression developed in humans. At the same time, while it is still not possible to determine the exact meaning of these symbols we hope that continued research will unveil those key details."


Source: Hebrew University of Jerusalem [February 03, 2021]



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1 comment :

  1. Well it has to be practical reason. You need surface what doesn't lip so you skrach it that it has some friction, lines what are opposite than handheld is is best to do so make lines what are opposite to use like sticking, or throw so it has more friction when it is on the move and in your hand. How simple this has to be told that you weren't there, you cant say this kind of things from scratch, cant be taken seriously, first is practice symbolic is second thought. 4 lines in same linear has no symbolic meaning,symbolic meaning comes afterwords. You use half moon as sing frm practice at half moon time ( festive example) until practice is forgotten and half moon comes symbol for night in general (night club) everybody know that place is used by night. This seem to me scratch from animal nails, what it represent if it is symbolic or is actually.

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