To the untrained eye, this tiny piece of volcanic rock vaguely resembling a female figurine looks natural, but under the microscope, the grooves around the neck and on the sides show signs of deliberate modifications that closely resemble marks made in similar material by sharp-edged tools. The rock did naturally have a “human-like” shape, to begin with, that was accentuated by carving with a stone-wedge.
The figurine, called the Venus of Berekhat Ram, was initially highly controversial as many paleontologists saw it as a product of erosion rather than a deliberate act of creativity. But the discovery of a second similar figurine, the Venus of Tan-Tan, in Morocco, has strengthened the case for this figure and has secured its status as the world’s oldest piece of sculpture found. The rock was dated between a mind-boggling 230,000 and 700,000 years ago, predating our very species, Home sapiens, and even Neanderthal man. It was probably created by an even earlier hominid, like the Homo erectus.
The Venus of Berekhat Ram was found in 1981 during an archeological excavations on the banks of Berekhat Ram, or Lake Ram, on the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel. The figure was carved into a piece of tuff, which is formed when volcanic ash settles on the landscape and is hot enough to weld together into a light, porous rock, often like pumice stone.
The figurine is about 3.5 cm long and exhibits at least three groove-like incisions made by a sharp-edged stone. One incision is a deep groove that encircles the narrower end of the pebble, indicating the neck, while the two shallower, curved grooves run down the sides, marking the arms.
The object was found between two layers of volcanic ash, the upper layer of which was dated about 230,000 BCE, while the lower one dated 700,000 BCE, indicating the stone was carved between these two dates. The discovery at Berekhat Ram was followed by another discovery of a similar object in Morocco — the Venus of Tan-Tan— found sandwiched between two layers dated, respectively, 200,000 and 500,000 years ago.
Anatomically modern humans had not evolved then, neither did Neanderthals. Instead, this period was populated by the Homo erectus, which means "upright man". These distant relatives of the modern human appeared some 2 million years ago in Africa and from there they spread to the rest of the world. They existed as recently as 70,000 years ago.
Homo erectus used complex tools, lived in a hunter-gatherer societies and cared for the infirm and the weak. They knew how to use fire and cooked their food. Although they were incapable of producing sounds comparable to modern human speech, they did communicate in a sort of language more developed than chimpanzees.
Paleontologists still debate whether the Venuses of Berekhat Ram and Tan-Tan are the results of natural weathering and erosion or deliberate carving, but there are other damning evidences of artistic expression during this period, such as the petroglyphs of Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh, India, dated between 290,000 and 700,000 BCE. However, compelling examples of aesthetic sensibility did not appear in the archaeological record until the emergence of behaviorally modern humans around 50,000 years ago.
Anthropogenic modifications on the Berekhat Ram object according to two different groups of experts. Photo credit: www.donsmaps.com
The Venus of Tan-Tan
A model of the face of an adult female Homo erectus, one of the first truly human ancestors of modern humans, on display in the Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C
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