Archaeologists Find Earliest Etching in Levant, but Is It a Message From 120,000 Years Ago?

The six parallel lines on an aurochs bone weren’t made by nature or a butcher, but by the intent of the manufacturer, whether Neanderthal or sapiens

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Earliest etching in the Levant: Aurochs bone with engraved parallel lines from 120,000 years ago
Earliest etching in the Levant: Aurochs bone with engraved parallel lines from 120,000 years agoCredit: Dr. Yossi Zaidner

About 120,000 years ago, in what is today Israel, somebody devoted great effort to etching six parallel lines on the bone of an aurochs. This discovery in the open-air Middle Paleolithic site of Nesher Ramla in Israel is the oldest evidence of deliberate decoration in the Levant.

The bone and the few similar objects found to date support the theory that both early modern humans and the hominins predating them were capable of behavior associated with symbolism, suggests the team led by Marion Prévost of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology, with Yossi Zaidner, Iris Groman-Yaroslavski and Kathryn Crater Gershtein of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, and José-Miguel Tejero of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique de France. The study was published this week in Quaternary International.

It bears adding that the oldest evidence of deliberate etching is a good 400,000-plus years old, maybe more than 500,000 years, predating the appearance of modern humans. A clam shell found in Java, Indonesia, bears elaborate zigzag marks that were categorically not natural. Based on who might have been in Indonesia at the time, the thinking is the clam was decorated by a Homo erectus – one reason why symbolism is suspected to go back to the dim reaches of prehistory.

“It is now widely accepted that both anatomically modern humans and hominins that predate them have produced deliberate engravings associated with symbolic behavior,” the team writes.

Having discovered the relatively complete leg bone with the marks, the next question is what it might mean, if anything. The fact is, we have no idea what our next-door neighbor has in mind, let alone a hominin who lived 120,000 years ago and had a predilection for beef. But one may speculate.

Excavation of Nesher RamlaCredit: Dr. Yossi Zeidner

Not a butcher, not nature

One possibility the researchers examined and rejected is that the marks were made by butchering the aurochs, a type of large wild ox that thronged the Middle East and Levant and was much loved to eat. The aurochs is extinct – the last known one died in Poland in 1627 (and no, efforts to resurrect the species by mixing cows may create an alternative cow but not a true aurochs).

Anyway, butchering marks on animal (and human ...) bones are common and categorized, and this isn’t what they look like. The marks on our aurochs bone are roughly parallel, if not equal, ranging from 3.8 to 4.2 centimeters (1.7 inches) long. Butchery marks are not so methodical in direction or form.

Moreover, either the marks’ maker or somebody else placed the decorated leg bone on a pile of debris with the etching facing upward, which in and of itself could have meaning, Zaidner told Haaretz. That pile included flint tools used for butchering such as cutting tools and hammers to shatter bones to get at the marrow, he says. And it included animal bones that showed evidence of butchering.

Nor could the grooves have possibly been some sort of natural phenomenon, the team writes.

Laboratory analysis of microscopic elements in the grooves done at Groman-Yaroslavski’s lab concluded that the marks were made using a sharp flint tool. The U-shaped profile of the grooves and their width and depth led the team to conclude that the marks were made by a human deliberately carving lines into the bone.

A human? Meaning what? Could it have been Neanderthal, Homo sapiens, a hybrid or someone else entirely? Who was at this open-air hominin campsite in central Israel 120,000 years ago? We aren’t sure, Zaidner says, but work is being done on that question.

Closeup of the aurochs bone with engraved parallel lines from 120,000 years agoCredit: Dr. Yossi Zaidner
Sketch of the engraved marks on the aurochs boneCredit: Marion Prevost

Another theoretical possibility is that the marks were made by a bored hominin scratching idly at the bone, no? “Definitely not,” Zaidner says when asked about that. “Making it took a lot of investment. Etching [a bone] is a lot of work.”

Also, the bone is relatively small and one would have had to hold it firmly while making the marks, which argues against an hominin idly scratching the bone with a tool. The parallel character of the marks also indicate repetitive actions, Zaidman says.

Actually, we may wonder how challenging it is to scratch marks on a bone, even parallel marks, even deep ones, using a sharp flint. We may also postulate that the hominins of central Israel had time on their hands, but the point is taken.

Nor does the team think the lines were made for the sake of counting, on the grounds that if someone marked a bone to count events, the lines would probably have been made at different times. “But it looks like the lines were made at the same time using the same tool,” Zaidman says.

And so, if the marks can’t be from butchering, probably aren’t a doodle and aren’t likely to be a prehistoric abacus, we arrive at art or symbolism, Zaidner explains.

Animal bones and tools, Nesher RamlaCredit: Dr. Yossi Zeidner

Say it with an aurochs bone

If indeed this bone represents a symbolic representation and is part of a long history of theoretically symbolic representation (despite being the earliest found in the Levant), why haven’t more such specimens been found? This newly reported bone is one of only five such prehistoric etched items found in the Levant, even though it has been a stamping ground of humanity and its precursors since they began leaving Africa.

The whole point of making an artifact with symbolic meaning is for others in the group to understand what it means, and that in and of itself would seemingly argue that such artifacts wouldn’t be rare, Zaidner says. Certainly not if they go back almost half a million years.

The answer may that the paucity is an artifact of the nature of archaeology and paleontology – very little survives the millennia and eons in fossil form. Some believe that for all the fossil richness found to date, it represents a tiny fraction of all species that ever lived on the planet. It’s not only possible but likely that there were more such artifacts that we could associate with symbolism, but they didn’t survive. Or we didn’t recognize them as such, Zaidner notes.

“We hypothesize that the choice of this particular bone was related to the status of that animal in that hunting community and is indicative of the spiritual connection that the hunters had with the animals they killed,” the team writes.

Prévost, who led the study, says there is “every indication” that the carving conveyed a definite message. “We reject any assumption that these grooves were some sort of inadvertent doodling. That type of artwork wouldn’t have seen this level of attention to detail,” she says. What that message may have been may lie, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.

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