Discovery of a Paleolithic bird carving at Lingjing Henan, China

Panayiota Siskos ’23

Figure 1: A passerine bird, which is believed to be the subject of the carving discovered at Lingjing Henan, China.

Modernity’s understanding about the history of symbolic behavior has increased during the past two decades, and a gradualist scenario has taken shape from the idea of a symbolic explosion occurring 40,000 years ago in Europe with the appearance of anatomically modern human populations. However, there is evidence that such behaviors are older and emerged from African Middle Stone Age and archaic Europe and Asian populations. A recently-discovered bone carving of a standing bird at the Paleolithic site in Lingjing Henan, China is argued to have a Late Paleolithic origin at 13,500 years, making it the first known instance of original artistic tradition.

Once unearthed, the bird carving was 3D scanned and photographed. The images were imported to Adobe illustrator to trace areas of manufacture found with a microscope. To account for imaging inaccuracies, the Adobe rendering was compared to the original and corrections were done. This data from different imaging techniques established the technique of manufacture used on the bird and orientation of carving motion on identified areas.

The bird carving displays a morphology related to Passeriformes, the largest order of birds in the world. Unfortunately, there is not enough detail for precise identification. Instead of the short legs associated with the passerine, a bird within the order Passeriformes, there is a large rectangle pedestal for the figurine to stand upright, an oversized tail that prevents tipping, and flat, lateral body parts with no wings. A fragment of medium-sized mammal limb bone with the inner and outer cortex removed was used to create the bird. The carving was blackened, and color gradient and density suggests a controlled heat treatment was used. Despite the first manufacture stage being unidentifiable, it possibly included abrading the bone. Similarly, gouging roughed the figurine and shaped concave areas. Experimental criteria conclude the traces are consistent with wear patterns from transportation in a leather bag. 

The carving of the bird is the first carving discovered at the site and differs regarding technology and style from discoveries in Europe and Siberia. It is the only Paleolithic item carved into burnt bone and with a standing bird on a pedestal and being preserved well enough to observe different manufacturing stages. A future direction for this study may include performing controlled experiments to reproduce the heating treatment used and then analyzing its effect on the ease of carving the raw material.

Works Cited

[1] Z. Li, et al., A paleolithic bird figurine from the Lingjing site, Henan, China. PLoS ONE 15, 1-24 (2020). doi: /10.1371/journal.pone.0233370.

[2] Image retrieved from: https://www.pexels.com/photo/nightingale-resting-on-tree-twig-in-garden-5359008/ 

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