Scientists have unveiled what they say is the earliest known example of East Asian 3D art after quite literally rescuing it from a scrapheap.
While investigating a Palaeolithic archaeological site at Lingjing in Henan, China, they noticed a layer of soil had been dug up to create a well, but the nearby refuse pile had not been disturbed.
Sifting through the pile, they found pottery shards, burned animal remains and a miniature bone carving of a songbird on a pedestal that they believe is 13,300 years old – significantly older than the previous record-holder, a jade songbird dated to around 5000 years ago.
The international team from China, France, Israel and Norway was led by Zhanyang Li from China’s Shandong University and their work is described in a paper in the journal PLOS ONE.
“This discovery identifies an original artistic tradition and pushes back by more than 8500 years the representation of birds in Chinese art,” they say.
“The figurine differs technologically and stylistically from other specimens found in Western Europe and Siberia, and it could be the missing link tracing the origin of Chinese statuary back to the Palaeolithic period.”
During his initial excavation at Lingjing in 2005, Li uncovered 11 distinct stratified layers ranging in age from 120,000 years ago to the Bronze Age.
Most of the fifth layer had been removed during a well-digging operation in 1958, but the refuse heap created at the time remained and contained black flint only found in what remained of that layer.
The figurine is about two centimetres long and its short head and neck, rounded bill and long tail are reminiscent of Passeriformes – an order that encompasses more than half of all known extant bird species.
Using radiocarbon dating on the uncovered burned animal remains, including one bone with anthropogenic gouging marks also observed on the bird carving, the team was able to estimate the age of the figurine and associated bone material.
“Microscopic and microtomographic analyses of the figurine and the study of bone fragments from the same context reveal the object was made of bone blackened by heating and carefully carved with four techniques that left diagnostic traces on the entire surface of the object,” the authors write in their paper.
Their findings suggest, they say, that hunter-gatherers with stone tool technologies occupied Lingjing during this time.
Bird representations are a theme in Chinese Neolithic art, and the new discovery has several technological and stylistic elements that Li and colleagues say distinguish it from contemporaneous representations of birdlike creatures from Western Europe and Siberia.
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