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Sculpture Twice as Old as the Pyramids

A wooden sculpture found in Russia's Ural mountains is about 12,250 years old. It's the oldest known surviving work of wooden ritual art in the world.

Gold prospectors first discovered the so-called Shigir Idol at the bottom of a peat bog in Russia’s Ural mountain range in 1894. The unique object - a nine-foot-tall totem pole composed of ten wooden fragments carved with expressive faces, eyes and limbs and decorated with geometric patterns - represents the oldest known surviving work of wooden ritual art in the world.

Carved from a single larch tree with 159 growth rings, the object itself was likely crafted around 12,250 years ago, at the end of the Last Ice Age, reports Michelle Starr for Science Alert. It therefore predates Stonehenge, which was built around 5,000 years ago, by more than 7,000 years. It’s also twice as old as the Egyptian pyramids, which date to roughly 4,500 years ago.

This revised and authenticated date for the Shigir Idol has major implications for the study of prehistory, which tends to emphasize a Western-centric view of human development.

In 1997, Russian scientists carbon-dated the totem pole to about 9,500 years ago. Many in the scientific community rejected these findings as implausible: Reluctant to believe that hunter-gatherer communities in the Urals and Siberia had created art or formed cultures of their own. Researchers instead presented a narrative of human evolution that centered European history, with ancient farming societies in the Fertile Crescent eventually sowing the seeds of Western civilization.

Prevailing views over the past century regarded hunter-gatherers as inferior to early agrarian communities emerging at that time in the Levant. At the same time, the archaeological evidence from the Urals and Siberia was underestimated and neglected.

The fact that this rare evidence of hunter-gatherer artwork endured until modern times is a marvel in and of itself, notes Science Alert. The acidic, antimicrobial environment of the Russian peat bog preserved the wooden structure for millennia.


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