Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A 400,000-year-old stone object unearthed in Morocco could be the world's oldest attempt at sculpture.

That is the claim of a prehistoric art specialist who says the ancient rock bears clear signs of modification by humans.

The object, which is around six centimetres in length, is shaped like a human figure, with grooves that suggest a neck, arms and legs. On its surface are flakes of a red substance that could be remnants of paint.

The object was found 15 metres below the eroded surface of a terrace on the north bank of the River Draa near the town of Tan-Tan. It was reportedly lying just a few centimetres away from stone handaxes in ground layers dating to the Middle Acheulian period, which lasted from 500,000 to 300,000 years ago.

Cultural controversy

The find is likely to further fuel a vociferous debate over the timing of humanity's discovery of symbolism. Hominids such as Homo heidelbergensis and Homo erectus, that were alive during the Acheulian period, are not thought to have been capable of the symbolic thought needed to create art.

Writing in the journal Current Anthropology, Robert Bednarik, president of the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations (IFRAO), suggests that the overall shape of the Tan-Tan object was fashioned by natural processes.

But he argues that conspicuous grooves on the surface of the stone, which appear to emphasise its humanlike appearance, are partially man-made. Mr Bednarik claims that some of these grooves were made by repeated battering with a stone tool to connect up natural depressions in the rock.

"What we've got is a piece of stone that is largely naturally shaped.

"It has some modifications, but they are more than modifications," Mr Bednarik told BBC News Online.

Mr Bednarik tried to replicate the markings on a similar piece of rock by hitting a stone flake with a "hammerstone" in the manner of a punch. He then compared the microscopic structure of the fractures with those of the Tan-Tan object.

For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.

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