Archaeologists believe that the Shigir Idol, a 5-meter carved wooden idol unearthed in 1894 by gold prospectors, is 11,600 years old. Covered front and back with recognizably human faces, the wooden artifact is one of the world’s oldest examples of monumental art, writes Andrew Curry for Science. For more than a century, archaeologists assumed the statute was a few thousand years old, but in a paper published in the journal Antiquity, scholars argue that it is the handiwork of hunter-gatherers, and not of farming societies.
New samples taken in 2014 place the age of the sculpture to a time when the world was transitioning out of the last ice age. “We have to conclude hunter-gatherers had complex ritual and expression of ideas, says Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the University of Göttingen, Germany, and a co-author or the paper. “Ritual doesn’t start with farming, but with hunter-gatherers.” The new date places the statue in post-glacial Eurasia at a time when forests were just beginning to spread, writes Curry.
Peter Vang Petersen, an archaeologist at The National Museum of Denmark, believes that art changed as the landscape changed, perhaps as a way to help people come to grips with the unfamiliar forest environments they were navigating. Mikhail Zhilin of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and co-author of the study agrees. “The idol is a reminder that stone wasn’t the only material people in the past used to make art and monuments—just the one most likely to survive, possibly skewing our understanding of prehistory,” he says.