Leonardo of the Pleistocene

By Kathy A. Svitil|Wednesday, October 01, 2003

The Tan-Tan figurine, apparently carved from a piece of quartzite rock, dates from the days of Homo erectus.
Photograph courtesy of Robert Bednarik.

A two-inch-long piece of quartzite rock, pulled from a 400,000-year-old deposit near the Moroccan city of Tan-Tan, is a crude human figurine, says Australian archaeologist Robert Bednarik. If he is correct, this innocuous little lump is the oldest piece of art ever found.

The rock's discoverer initially didn't think much of the find—he was more interested in the stone tools nearby—but was sufficiently intrigued by its humanoid shape to turn the object over to Bednarik, president of the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations in Melbourne. Eight grooves in the Tan-Tan object seem to create a crude head, neck, torso, arms, and legs. "My first impression was that it was a natural object," Bednarik says. When he examined the rock under a microscope, however, he noticed that five of the grooves looked as if they were made deliberately: "Some grains have fractures, others have been broken apart. It's an indication of impact." The only way he was able to re-create these microscopic structures was by using a stone hammer and flake. The artifact also shows microscopic remnants of iron oxide and manganese oxide, chemicals used in early red pigments, implying it had been painted.

If the Tan-Tan object is a work of art, then humans must have developed abstract thought hundreds of thousands of years earlier than is commonly believed. Bednarik also claims to have uncovered an artlike object at least 2.5 million years old. Many of his colleagues are skeptical, partly because these claims contradict the standard Eve hypothesis, which holds that modern humans arose in Africa and spread around the world, displacing groups of primitive humans. If those groups had art and collaborative skills, they weren't so primitive, Bednarik says: "The only way to maintain the Eve hypothesis is by drawing a thick line between moderns and totally different archaic people. That's not what we see."
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