This tiny bird figurine is the oldest three-dimensional sculpture ever discovered in East Asia.
Known as the Lingjing bird, the figurine was carved out of an animal bone some 13,400 to 13,200 years ago. While just under 2 centimeters long and 1.2 centimeters tall, the tiny sculpture is giving researchers a fresh idea about how three-dimensional artwork emerged in different cultures across the world.
The Lingjing bird was discovered in 2005 during an archeological excavation near Lingjing in the Chinese province of Henan. Reported in the journal PLOS One, a team of scientists at the University of Bordeaux in France and Shandong University have recently studied the figurine using radiocarbon dating and an array of imaging techniques, concluding the figurine was carved at least 13,200 years ago.
The team used imaging techniques on the object to understand how the prehistoric artist created the figurine. Along with highlighting the subtle gouging and scraping marks on the outer layer of the sculpture, scans revealed the internal blood vessel network inside the bone, which suggests it was sculpted out of a limb bone from a medium-sized mammal.
Before this discovery, the oldest known figurine artwork from this region was 8,500 years old. Although the Lingjing bird is the oldest example of three-dimensional artwork in East Asia, older examples have been found elsewhere in the world. The oldest-known uncontested example of figurative art is the Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel. Discovered in a cave in southwestern Germany, it consists of an incredibly detailed sculpture of a half-lion, half-human carved out of mammoth ivory between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago. It’s widely thought the sculpture was made by humans, but researchers can’t rule out the possibility it was created by a Neanderthal.
Birds are a common theme in ancient and prehistoric East Asian artworks. According to the paper, there's an example of a jade bird sculpture from China dating back to around 5,000 years ago. However, the precise meaning of this tiny bird figurine is unclear.
Stone age art and other acts of prehistoric creativity raise incredibly profound questions about humanity and our place in the world around us. Why would a group of hunter-gatherers – who struggle under a constant grind to eat, shelter, and avoid death – spend hours crafting an object that serves no immediate practical purpose? In regards to this bird, perhaps it served some spiritual or ceremonial purpose, perhaps they were just bored and sculptured the bird to pass the time. There are no certain answers, but it does suggest that prehistoric humans – just like humans today – may have some deep need to represent the world around them through art.