Six lines carved on a 120,000-year-old bone fragment found in central Israel could be one of the earliest known uses of symbols found on Earth, if not the first, according to Israeli and French researchers.
The bone fragment, found recently during an excavation near the city of Ramle, has six similar etchings on one side of the bone, leading researchers to conclude that they were deliberately carved symbols, according to a joint statement from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Haifa University released Wednesday.
“It is fair to say that we have discovered one of the oldest symbolic engravings ever found on earth, and certainly the oldest in the Levant,” said Yossi Zaidner of the Institute of Archeology at Hebrew University. “This discovery has very important implications for understanding of how symbolic expression developed in humans.”
The researchers also included a team from Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France.
According to the findings, which were recently published in the scientific journal “Quaternary International,” the six engravings range from 38 to 42 millimeters.
“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,” said Iris Groman-Yaroslavski from the University of Haifa.
They used three-dimensional imaging, microscopic methods of analysis, and experimental reproduction of engravings in the laboratory and were even able to determine that the work was performed by a right-handed craftsman in a single working session.
The paper said that the scientist determined the carvings were definitely intentionally manmade 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 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 bone.
They also dismissed the possibility the carvings could have been “inadvertent doodling.”
“That type of artwork wouldn’t have seen this level of attention to detail,” said Marion Prévost from the Institute of Archeology at Hebrew University.
Scientists 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), but findings to support that theory are extremely rare. Only five similar findings have been found in the Levant.
Given their likely deliberate nature, the researchers concluded that the symbols must have had meaning. “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,” the paper says.
While they can’t tell exactly what the carvings symbolized, they believe that the bone, from an aurochs, a now-extinct large wild cattle, was deliberately chosen.
“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,” the paper said.
The bone was discovered in a trove of flint tools and animal bones exposed at a site during archaeological excavations.