June 10 (UPI) -- Archaeologists have recovered a 13,500-year-old bird figurine from a heap of ancient sediment removed during a 1958 well-digging operation.
The small figurine, carved from bone, is the oldest piece of three-dimensional art yet recovered from East Asia.
"In East Asia and Africa, the impression was that 3D representations were a cultural innovation appearing very late," Francesco d'Errico, an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France, told UPI in an email. "This figurine shows that, in China, sculpture has it roots in the Paleolithic."
China's Lingjing dig site features stratified sediment layers dating from 120,000 years ago to the Bronze Age, but the refuge heap from which the figurine was recovered is less well organized, complicating dating efforts. Uncovered burned animal remains helped scientists properly date the bone sculpture.
Researchers determined the bird figurine is roughly 13,500 years old, 8,500 years older than the next-oldest evidence of 3D art in the region. Scientists described the songbird, situated on a pedestal, in a new paper, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.
Archaeologists suggest the bird is a truly unique find, offering fresh insights into the artistic traditions that were already evolving among East Asian populations during the Paleolithic.
"What is more surprising is the very small size of the carving, the presence of a pedestal, a unicum in Paleolithic art, and the fact that its excellent state of preservation has allowed, using the right equipment, to reconstruct in such a precise way the techniques applied to carve the object," d'Errico said.
The figure is smaller and of a different style than 3D mammoth figurines found in Europe and Siberia, the oldest of which date back 40,000 years. The newly unearthed figurine is also carved from a unique material, bone blackened by fire.
"These differences suggest a different artistic tradition but we need more examples to test the hypothesis of an independent origin," said d'Errico, co-author of the newly published study.
The microblade technology found among ancient archeological sites suggest modern human populations arrived in East Asia some 30,000 years ago. The discovery of ancient art can help scientists better understand the evolution of these early peoples.
"Only some human cultures have developed 3D representations," d'Errico said. "This does not make them more clever than others but certainly reflects the need to materialize symbols in a different way and entails that new skills are required and need to be transmitted by devoted apprenticeship to new generations."