Discovery of the oldest Chinese art

An international team, including researchers from the Pacea* laboratory, have unveiled the discovery in China of a 13,500-year-old miniature bird sculpture made from burnt bone. This statuette is believed to be the oldest known work of Chinese art; dating back by more than 8,500 years the origin of sculpture in East Asia. This discovery was published on the 10th June 2020 in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.

  • 12/06/2020

Photograph (top) and 3D reconstruction by microtomography (bottom) of the bird sculpture © Francesco d’Errico & Luc Doyon Photograph (top) and 3D reconstruction by microtomography (bottom) of the bird sculpture © Francesco d’Errico & Luc Doyon

It has been known for some years that the first symbolic behaviors date back at least 100,000 years, and consist mainly of personal ornaments, pigments and abstract engravings. The integration of three-dimensional representations, whether sculpted or modelled, into the cultural repertoire of human societies is less well documented. The appearance of these symbolic productions in different regions of the world is still poorly known, and questions of dissemination or re-invention of this behavior remain topical. An international team of researchers from the Pacea* laboratory, the Universities of Shandong and Bergen, and the Weizmann Institute of Science has just unveiled in the journal PLoS ONE the discovery, at a Chinese site, of a 13,500-year-old miniature bird sculpture made from burnt bone.

Identification of an original artistic tradition

The discovery of this statuette, now the oldest work of Chinese art, sets back the origin of sculpture in East Asia by more than 8,500 years. Its stylistic and technological peculiarities – it is the only known Paleolithic sculpture of an animal standing on a pedestal – identify an original artistic tradition, unknown until now.

The idea that artistic manifestations first flourished when members of our species, Homo sapiens, arrived in Europe 42,000 years ago has been challenged by the discovery of cave paintings from the same period in Southeast Asia, at sites from Borneo and Sulawesi. Similarly, the dating of 64,000-year-old calcite deposits covering geometric signs and handprints on the walls of three Spanish caves has led to the interpretation that they were painted by Neanderthals.

In light of these advances, which are still controversial, sculpture remains the only art form for which Europe can claim with some certainty to be the center of origin. The oldest known statuettes, carved from mammoth ivory and depicting animals and humans, date to the Aurignacian period (40,000 years ago) and come from archaeological sites located in the Swabian Jura, Germany. For large areas of the world, however, it remains unclear when the production of three-dimensional representations became an integral part of the cultural repertoire of human societies, and whether this innovation was achieved independently or by diffusion from a center of origin.

A small bird carved with great care

The carving discovered by the international team of researchers was unearthed at Lingjing, a site located in the Henan Province, China, from an archaeological context dated between 13,800 and 13,000 years ago. The black sculpture, just 1.5 cm in length, was carved in a burnt bone fragment and depicts a bird, probably belonging to the Passeriform order. Instead of carving the bird’s legs, the artist has whittled a pedestal that allows the figure to stand. 

Thanks to the exceptional state of preservation of the object and the application of advanced analytical techniques, including confocal microscopy and µCT-scan, researchers were able to reconstruct the Paleolithic sculptor technology at a level of details unmatched in previous studies of objects of equivalent antiquity. The small passerine was sculpted with great care by combining four different techniques that left sixty-eight microfacets on the surface of the object. The microscopic analysis leaves no doubt: the craftsman knew how to choose the right tools and apply them to achieve, considering the small size of the sculpture, an astonishing formal balance and beauty.

 

This discovery identifies an original artistic tradition and pushes back by more than 8,500 years the representation of birds in Chinese art. The figurine differs technologically and stylistically from other specimens found in Western Europe and Siberia. It is the only carving dating from the Late Pleistocene that is black in color and depicts a standing bird. It could be the missing link tracing the origin of Chinese statuary back to the Paleolithic period.

*Pacea - From Prehistory to Modern Times: Culture, Environment and Anthropology (CNRS, French Ministry of Culture and University of Bordeaux)

Scientific publication

Li Z, Doyon L, Fang H, Ledevin R, Queffelec A, Raguin E, et al. (2020) A Paleolithic bird figurine from the Lingjing site, Henan, China.

Scientific contact

Francesco d’Errico
Archeologist at the Pacea laboratory