A pendant from northern Mongolia may be the earliest known example of phallic art, according to a study published this month in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.
The 1.7-inch-long artifact—found along with other pendants, beads and animal bone fragments—was discovered in the Khangai Mountains in 2016. Now, following further analysis, researchers think the artifact is meant to resemble a human penis.
“Three-dimensional phallic pendants are unknown in the Paleolithic record, and this discovery predates the earliest known sexed anthropomorphic representation,” per the study.
The researchers say that grooves carved into the artifact are meant to mark the urethral opening and distinguish the glans from the shaft. “Our argument is that when you want to represent something abstractly, you will choose very specific features that really characterize what you want to represent,” says lead author Solange Rigaud, an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France, to Science’s David Shultz.
One side of the stone is smoother than the other, perhaps suggesting that it was worn around the neck—and that one side had rubbed against the skin of the wearer. Still, the reason the pendant was made remains unclear.
“It’s hard to know its exact function,” Rigaud tells Live Science’s Jennifer Nalewicki. “It’s possible that this person wore a body ornament as a way to transmit information to others showing their group identity, or it held a personal meaning to the wearer.”
The researchers determined that the pendant is roughly 42,000 years old. They also found that it’s made of graphite acquired more than 60 miles away from the site, Rigaud tells Live Science.
“Graphite was a rare material and was not commonly used in this region during that time period,” she says. “It came from far away and probably was exchanged by a different group of nomadic people.”
The pendant is significant because it shows that its creators had the ability to think symbolically, “[highlighting] very specific cognitive capacities in our lineage,” Rigaud tells Science.
It’s also older than similar objects that today’s archaeologists have unearthed: “If the pendant is eventually accepted by the archaeology and historical community as a depiction of a penis, it would represent by far the oldest known example of a carved phallus,” writes Phys.org’s Bob Yirka. “The current record is roughly half that old—a stone that was carved approximately 28,000 years ago and found in Germany.”
Not all experts are sold on the researchers’ interpretation of the pendant. Curtis Runnels, an archaeologist at Boston University who was not involved in the study, calls it a “small and rather shapeless object,” telling Science that he “would need to be convinced” that the pendant is meant to depict a penis.
On the other hand, Francesco D’Errico, an archaeologist at Bordeaux who shares a lab with several of the study authors but wasn’t involved with the research, thinks that Rigaud’s team could be onto something.
“The small size of the object, the exotic provenance of the raw material, and the … modifications are quite telling,” he says to Science. “I think the interpretation holds.”