Carvings suggest artistry in early Europeans

Figurines could indicate beliefs in shamanism

December 18, 2003|By Bryn Nelson | Bryn Nelson,NEWSDAY

Modern humans living in southwestern Germany more than 30,000 years ago may have crafted some of the world's earliest artwork, according to a new study published today in the journal Nature.

The discovery of three small figurines carved from mammoth ivory - a bird, the head of a horse or other animal, and a half-man, half-animal - lends support to the notion that modern humans were producing well-rendered art soon after colonizing Europe.

The finds also bolster a theory that the early artists practiced a form of shamanism in which religious leaders were believed capable of traveling between the human and animal realms.

Nicholas Conard, the study's author and an archaeologist at the University of Tuebingen in Germany, said these and other carvings found in the area support the suggestion that they were routinely fashioned by modern human beings who had migrated up the Danube River corridor into Germany.

"Figurative art was a normal part of daily life for these people," Conard said in a telephone interview.

"I guess the bottom line is, we're dealing with people who are at a cultural level very similar to ourselves," he said.

Archaeologists have long considered the development of figurative art as a key signpost in the evolution of modern human thought.

Many researchers call this an adaptation that distinguishes our early human ancestors from their European contemporaries, the Neanderthals.

The three carvings found at Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany, as well as more than 20 similar figures previously known from nearby sites, are widely considered the creations of modern humans despite the lack of human remains found in the archaeological deposits.

Moreover, the assigned ages rival the Grotte Chauvet cave paintings of southern France for the oldest-known examples of figurative art in the world.

Carbon-based dating of the sedimentary layer containing the 2-inch-long horse's head puts its age at slightly more than 30,000 years. The waterfowl and half-man figures, both found in lower layers, are at least 31,000 to 33,000 years ago, Conard said.

Researchers don't yet know whether modern humans developed their artistic skills before or after colonizing Europe between 40,000 and 35,000 years ago. But separate finds - ivory beads and flutes made from swan bones among them - have convinced many scientists that humans possessed surprisingly sophisticated means of artistic expression very early on.

Anthony Sinclair, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool in England who wrote an accompanying commentary on the study, said the bird and half-man, half-animal figures are purported symbols of shamanism and may add fodder for arguments that they were personal possessions created to convey religious beliefs.

Although the finds on their own are unlikely to resolve the debate over intent, Sinclair said their symbolic nature unquestionably reveals the workings of a modern mind.

"If the question is, `When do we see humans that are like ourselves?' then I think everyone would point to this material and say this is the clear evidence," he said.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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