PARIS (AFP) – A miniature bird sculpted out of burnt bone in China around 13,500 years ago is the oldest known figurine from East Asia, according to researchers who discovered it in a refuse heap near an archaeological site.
The carefully crafted depiction of a songbird on a pedestal – smaller than an almond kernel – was found among burnt animal remains and fragments of ceramics at Lingjing in north central Henan province, an area thought to have been home to some of China’s earliest civilisations.
The figurine is the “oldest known carving from East Asia”, said Francesco D’Errico of the University of Bordeaux, who co-authored the research published in the journal PLOS One on Wednesday.
“It shows that in this region sculpture starts at least 13,500 years ago, and fills in a gap in our knowledge about the origin of art in this vast region,” he told AFP.
The tiny carving was discovered by lead author Zhanyang Li of Shandong University, who has been excavating parts of the Lingjing site since 2005.
Digging in the area had already revealed 11 distinct 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, and disposed of at a refuse heap nearby.
That dumping area was still intact years later, and when the authors sifted through the soil they found several artefacts, including pottery shards, burnt animal remains and the bird figurine.
The carving is just 19.2mm long, 5.1mm wide and 12.5mm high.
Researchers were unable to use radiocarbon dating on the bird itself because the process would have damaged it. But they dated similar bones found with it, including one gouged using the same technique.
In this way they estimated the age of the bird figurine to be 13,500 years, which they said predates previously known figurines from this region by almost 8,500 years.
D’Errico said the bird was “exceptionally” well preserved, enabling researchers to trace the various carving methods used to create different parts of the figure, including gouging with a stone tool, scraping and polishing.