120,000-Year-Old Engraved Aurochs Bone Found in Israel

The 120,000-year-old animal bone fragment with six incised lines is one of the oldest representations of abstract patterns produced by Middle Paleolithic and Middle Stone Age hominins and the oldest known so far in the Levant.

The 120,000-year-old engraved bone with six deliberately produced incisions from the Nesher Ramla site, Israel. Image credit: Prévost et al., doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2021.01.002.

The engraved bone fragment was recovered at the open-air archaeological site of Nesher Ramla on the western slopes of the Judean hills in central Israel.

The specimen was dated to the beginning of Marine Isotope Stage 5 period (120,000 years ago).

The bone was from an aurochs (Bos primigenius), an extinct species of ox that inhabited Europe, Asia and North Africa.

“The site was likely used as a camp or a meeting place for Paleolithic hunters who would then slaughter the animals they caught at that location,” said senior author Dr. Yossi Zaidner, an archaeologist in the Institute of Archeology at Hebrew University.

“The identified bone is believed to have come from an aurochs, an extinct species of wild cattle.”

The researchers studied the engraved bone using 3D imaging and microscopic methods of analysis.

They think that the engravings were most likely produced by a right-handed individual in a single working session.

The characteristics of the incisions, especially the presence of longitudinal polish and striations in one of the incisions, suggest that they were made by a retouched flint flake.

“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 Dr. Iris Groman-Yaroslavski, an archaeologist in the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa.

Schematic representation of the engraved bone from the Nesher Ramla site; the black arrow on top represents the assumed sequential direction of production of the incisions; the orange arrow on the right represents the reconstructed directional motion the engraver used while creating the incisions. Image credit: Prévost et al., doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2021.01.002.

According to the team, the production of the engravings is likely related to a symbolic behavior.

“Every indication was that there was a definite message behind what was carved into the bone,” said first author Marion Prévost, an archaelogist in the Institute of Archeology at Hebrew University.

“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.”

“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 authors said.

“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,” Dr. Zaidner said.

“This discovery has very important implications for understanding of how symbolic expression developed in humans.”

“At the same time, while it is still not possible to determine the exact meaning of these symbols we hope that continued research will unveil those key details.”

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