Does This Carving Depict a Paleolithic Campsite?

A chunk of stone may be marked with one of the oldest drawings of a human campsite

cave engraving
A close-up of what might be one of the oldest depictions of a human dwelling. García-Diez et al.

It may look humble, but this newly-discovered stone carving may be the oldest depiction of a human home. The engraving dates back to 13,800 years ago and was dug up in 2013 at Moli del Salt, a Spanish dig site 30 miles west of Barcelona, according to a new paper published in the journal PLOS One.

"It was very dirty and partially covered by a crust," study co-authors Marcos Garcia-Diez and Manuel Vaquero tell Deborah Netburn for the Los Angeles Times. "Only some days later, when the cleaning of the slab was finished, were we aware of the importance of the piece."

Yet, even photos taken after the engraving was cleaned up are pretty unassuming. The entire stone slab is only 7 inches wide and 3 inches tall and is covered with seven semi-circular markings that Garcia-Diez and Vaquero believe symbolize huts. But while the carvings may not be as dramatic as paintings and carvings of animals from the same period of the upper Paleolithic era, they could represent a dramatic shift in how our ancestors thought about art.

Instead of depicting the surrounding world, this Paleolithic artist may have been turning towards his or her own communitty. While it’s impossible to tell what the artist’s intentions were, Garcia-Diez and Vaquero found that the shape and dimensions of the carvings match similar shelters used by both modern hunter-gatherer societies, like Native American wigwams.

Postholes discovered at Paleolithic settlements throughout Europe also suggest that many dwellings at the time had an oval shape like the drawings found at Moli del Salt, Tia Ghose writes for Live Science.

"We think that the Molí del Salt engraving supports the hypothesis that there was a secular art in the Paleolithic, devoid of spiritual or religious meaning. Due to its singularity, we think that it was the expression of the individual feeling of someone who departed from the conventions that ruled Paleolithic art," Garcia-Diez tells Ghose.

Most carvings discovered from this same time period typically depict animals and abstract symbols, along with the occasional human being. Before the most recent discovery, most early drawings of human habitations dated back to around 11,500 years ago when Neolithic humans began living in permanent settlements, Netburn writes, suggesting that this artist was thousands of years ahead of their time.

Garcia-Diez and Vaquero also believe that the positioning of the carvings suggests that the artist was experimenting with techniques for communicating depth by depicting the dwellings in several different rows and at different angles to each other on the slab.

Unfortunately without being able to interview the artist themselves, scientists may never know if the artist was a Paleolithic Van Gogh or just an idle doodler.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.