A European tool made from horse bone has been dated at more than 40,000 years old by scientists.
The awl, a small pointed tool for piercing holes, was found at the same site as a decorative pendant made from mammoth ivory, which dates from the same era.
The items, along with other bone fragments, were found at the Stajnia Cave in Poland.
The pendant and awl date from the Early Upper Palaeolithic period.
The items coincide with the dispersal of groups of humans in Central and Western Europe around 42,000 years ago. The human inhabitants started to manipulate mammoth tusks for the production of pendants and small portable art objects, like carved statuettes, at times decorated with geometric motifs.
In addition to lines, crosses and hash symbols, a new type of decoration — the alignment of punctuations — appeared in some ornaments in south-western France and in figurines in Swabian Jura in Germany.
Until now, most of these adornments were discovered from older excavations, and their chronological attributions remain uncertain.
A new study, reported in the journal Scientific Reports, describes the oldest known ivory punctate pendant — that is, a pendant marked with dots or tiny holes — found in Eurasia.
Its age of 41,500 years places this personal ornament from Stajnia Cave within the record of the earliest dispersals of Homo sapiens in Europe.
The work, which involved carbon dating, was led by researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, the University of Bologna in Italy, Wrocław University in Poland, the Polish Geological Institute-National Research Institute, Warsaw, Poland, and the Institute of Systematics and Evolution of Animals Polish Academy of Sciences.
“Determining the exact age of this jewellery was fundamental for its cultural attribution, and we are thrilled of the result,” said Sahra Talamo, lead author of the study and director of the BRAVHO radiocarbon lab within the chemistry department at Bologna University.
“This work demonstrates that using the most recent methodological advances in the radiocarbon method enables us to minimise the amount of sampling and achieve highly precise dates with a very small error range.
“If we want to seriously solve the debate on when mobiliary (portable) art emerged in Palaeolithic groups, we need to radiocarbon date these ornaments, especially those found during past fieldwork or in complex stratigraphic sequences.”
The study of the pendant and awl also involved digital techniques, which included micro-tomographic scans of the finds.
“Through 3D modeling techniques, the finds were virtually reconstructed and the pendant appropriately restored, allowing detailed measurements and supporting the description of the decorations,” said co-author Stefano Benazzi, director of the Osteoarchaeology and Paleoanthropology Laboratory at the Department of Cultural Heritage at the University of Bologna.
The pendant was discovered in 2010 during fieldwork directed by co-author Mikołaj Urbanowski among animal bones and a few Upper Palaeolithic stone tools.
Separate short-term occupations by Neanderthals and Homo sapiens groups have been identified from the cave’s archaeological record.
The disposal of the pendant probably occurred during a hunting expedition into the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland, where the pendant broke and was left behind in the cave.
Similar decorations appeared independently across Europe.
Co-author Wioletta Nowaczewska, of Wrocław University, said the pendant shows the great creativity and extraordinary manual skills of members of the group of Homo sapiens that occupied the site.
“The thickness of the plate is about 3.7 millimetres, showing an astonishing precision on carving the punctures and the two holes for wearing it,” she said.
Co-author Adam Nadachowski, from the Institute of Systematics and Evolution of Animals Polish Academy of Sciences, said any meaning attached to the shape of the pendant and its decoration will remain an open question. The pendant’s looping curve could, for example, indicate a lunar analemma (the position of the moon as seen from a fixed location), while the decorations could indicate a kill score.
“However, it is fascinating that similar decorations appeared independently across Europe.”
In broad-scale scenarios on the earliest expansion of Homo sapiens in Europe, the territory of modern-day Poland has often been excluded, suggesting that it remained deserted for several millennia after the demise of Neanderthals.
“The ages of the ivory pendant and the bone awl found at Stajnia Cave finally demonstrate that the dispersal of Homo sapiens in Poland took place as early as in Central and Western Europe,” said Andrea Picin from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.
“This remarkable result will change the perspective on how adaptable these early groups were and call into question the monocentric model of diffusion of the artistic innovation in the Aurignacian.”
Further detailed analyses on the ivory assemblages of Stajnia Cave and other sites in Poland are currently under way and promise to yield more insights into the strategies of production of personal ornaments in Central-Eastern Europe.
Talamo, S., Urbanowski, M., Picin, A. et al. A 41,500 year-old decorated ivory pendant from Stajnia Cave (Poland). Sci Rep 11, 22078 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-01221-6