They are just six roughly parallel lines carved into the side of an ancient animal bone, but an international team of scientists are convinced these markings from more than 120,000 years ago represent the oldest known use of symbols as a form of human communication.
Indeed, researchers have long theorised that man used symbols to communicate religious or spiritual messages for hundreds of millennia, but the physical evidence to support those theories from antiquity has often proved elusive.
However, this bone fragment, recently discovered during an excavation near the city of Ramla in central Israel, clearly displays 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 in February.
“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 the understanding of how symbolic expression developed in humans.”
Dr. Zaidner says that evidence suggests the site was used as a camp or a meeting place for hunters during the Palaeolithic period at least 120,000 years ago. The groups who gathered here then slaughtered the animals they caught for food.
However, many scientists believe that because animals were so vital to survival, many ancients believed in a spiritual or mystical connection between man and beast, which may help explain the carvings.
The recovered bone is believed to have come from an extinct species of large, wild cattle that was common in the Middle East at that time.
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 millimetres in length.
“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, explains Dr. Iris Groman-Yaroslavski from the University of Haifa.”
The scientists released their findings in the scientific journal ‘Quaternary International’. They emphasize that their analysis makes it very clear that the engravings were intentionally man-made and 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 the distinctly human intent to carve 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.
Ms. Marion Prévost from the Institute of Archaeology 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? “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 authors say in their report.
“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.”