New research suggests 10,000-year-old flint artifacts found at a Neolithic burial site in Jordan may be human figurines used in a prehistoric cult’s funeral rituals. If confirmed, the trove of more than 100 “violin-shaped” objects would be one of the Middle East’s earliest known examples of figurative art, reports Ariel David for Haaretz.
A team of Spanish archaeologists unearthed the mysterious artifacts at the Kharaysin archaeological site, located around 25 miles of the country’s capital, Amman. The layers in which the flints were found date to the eighth millennium B.C., the researchers write in the journal Antiquity.
The study hypothesizes that the flint objects may have been “manufactured and discarded” during funerary ceremonies “that included the extraction, manipulation and reburial of human remains.”
Juan José Ibáñez, an archaeologist at the Milá and Fontanals Institution for Humanities Research in Spain, tells New Scientist’s Michael Marshall that he and his colleagues discovered the proposed figurines while excavating a cemetery.
Crucially, Ibáñez adds, the array of flint blades, bladelets and flakes bear no resemblance to tools associated with the Kharaysin settlement, which was active between roughly 9000 and 7000 B.C. Per the paper, the objects lack sharp edges useful for cutting and display no signs of wear associated with use as tools or weapons.
Instead, the flints share a distinctive—albeit somewhat abstract—shape: “two pairs of double notches” that form a “violin-shaped outline,” according to the paper.
The scientists argue that the artifacts’ upper grooves evoke the narrowing of the neck around the shoulders, while the lower notches are suggestive of the hips. Some of the flints, which range in size from 0.4 to 2 inches, appear to have hips and shoulders of similar widths; others have wider hips, perhaps differentiating them as women versus men.
“Some figurines are bigger than others, some are symmetrical and some are asymmetrical, and some even seem to have some kind of appeal,” study co-author Ferran Borrell, an archaeologist at Spain’s Superior Council of Scientific Investigations, tells Zenger News’ Lisa-Maria Goertz. “Everything indicates that the first farmers used these statuettes to express beliefs and feelings and to show their attachment to the deceased.”
When the researchers first discovered the fragments, they were wary of identifying them as human figurines. Now, says Ibáñez to Haaretz, “Our analysis indicates that this is the most logical conclusion.”
Still, some scientists not involved in the study remain unconvinced of the findings.
Karina Croucher, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford in England, tells Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe that prehistoric humans may have used the flint artifacts to “keep the dead close” rather than as a form of ancestor worship.
Speaking with New Scientist, April Nowell, an archaeologist at Canada’s University of Victoria, says the team’s hypothesis intrigues her but notes that “humans are very good at seeing faces in natural objects.”
She adds, “If someone showed you that photograph of the ‘figurines’ without knowing the subject of the paper, you would most likely have said that this is a photograph of stone tools.”
Alan Simmons, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada, tells Live Science that interpreting the flint pieces as representing the human figure is “not unreasonable” but points out that “the suggestion that these ‘figurines’ may have been used to remember deceased individuals is open to other interpretations.”
Theorizing that the flints might have been tokens, gaming pieces or talismans, Simmons concludes, “There is no doubt that this discovery adds more depth to the complexity of Neolithic life.”