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Birds and Humans Are Depicted Together in This Rare Scene From 12,000 Years Ago

Researchers believe the discovery, detailed in a new study, represent an “exceptional milestone in European Paleolithic rock art”

(University of Barcelona)
smithsonian.com

A 12,000-year-old piece of limestone found in Spain includes something extremely rare: depictions of both human and bird figures. Only a handful of examples of Paleolithic European scenes depicting birds and humans interacting have been discovered to date.

As George Dvorsky at Gizmodo reports, the nearly 12-inch rock art was located in the Hort de la Bequera archaeological site in 2011, in an area of Catalonia due east of Barcelona near the village of Margalef.

The limestone has four main figures inscribed on it, two that appear to be humans and two that appear to be birds, including one long-necked animal, likely a crane, and one that appears to be a chick. It’s believed that the figures were incised into the stone by an ancient artist using a piece of flint. University of Barcelona researchers have detailed the portable art scene in a new study that appears in the journal L’Anthropologie.

The rock art is all the more remarkable because it was composed to tell a narrative story. “This is one of the few found scenes so far which suggest the birth of a narrative art in Europe,” Inés Domingo of the University of Barcelona, the study’s first author, says in a press release. The scene could depict two narratives: humans hunting the birds and the motherhood relationship of the adult bird and chick. That being said, it's difficult to say the creator's intent in carving the scene. “We do not know the meaning of the scene for prehistoric peoples, but what it says is that not only they were regarded as [prey] but also as a symbol for European Paleolithic societies," Domingo says.

The only other sites where humans and birds appear in scenes created during Palaeolitich Europe—which stretches from approximately 1.4 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago—are located far away from Margalef. The caves in Lascaux, France, include a half-man, half-bird figure as well as a nearby image with a bird on top of it. Images of birds and humans also appear engraved on a baton in the Teyat region of Dordogne in southern France and on the Great Hunter image found in Gönnersdorf, Germany. An artifact from France’s Abri Mège site also depicts three swans, in addition to anthropomorphic figures, horses, snakes or eels, and the head of a hind, however, the researchers note that while complex, the artwork lacks “the scenic or narrative component of the piece under study.”

While the meaning of the newly revealed piece of portable art from Hort de la Bequera can’t be determined for certain, the researchers believe all of its factors make it “unique in the Paleolithic repertoire.” “We do not doubt this is an exceptional milestone in European Paleolithic rock art due its singularity, its excellent conservation and the chances to study it within a general context of excavation,” as they put it in a press statement.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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