Archaeologists Find 13,500-Year-Old Bird Figurine in China

An international team of archaeologists has uncovered a diminutive carving, depicting a standing bird, at the Paleolithic site of Lingjing in Henan, China. The artifact is estimated to be 13,500 years old, making it the oldest example of East Asian 3D art ever discovered.

Lingjing bird carving: (A) photographs of the six aspects of the carvings; (B) 3D renderings of the carving obtained by CT scan. Scale bars – 2 mm. Image credit: Li et al, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0233370.

The open-air site of Lingjing, about 120 km south of the Yellow River, was discovered in 1965 and excavated yearly from 2005 to 2018.

The excavations identified eleven distinct layers ranging in age from 120,000 years ago to the Bronze Age.

Dr. Zhanyang Li from Shandong University and colleagues found several artifacts, including pottery sherds, burned animal remains, and the bird figurine, in sediments (layer 5) dated to 13,500 years ago.

The figurine is 19.2 mm in length, 5.1 mm in width, 12.5 mm tall, and depicts a small standing bird.

Its proportions, i.e., short head and neck, robust, rounded bill and long tail, are reminiscent of a passerine bird.

“In lieu of the passerine short legs, a large, rectangular pedestal allows the figurine to stand in the upright position. The oversized tail prevents the object from tilting forward,” the archaeologists said.

“Passeriformes (passerine birds) is an order that encompasses more than half of all known extant bird species. Unfortunately, the lack of minute details on the figurine prevents a more precise identification.”

The Lingjing bird figurine predates previously known comparable artifacts from this region by 8,500 years.

“The bird figurine from Lingjing constitutes the first carving found at an East Asian Paleolithic site and it differs technologically and stylistically from previous and contemporaneous representations of avifauna found in Europe and Siberia,” the researchers said.

“The earliest known statuettes, made of mammoth ivory and including a flying waterfowl, are found in the Swabian Jura. They are dated to 40,000-38,000 years ago.”

“Few other 3D carvings representing birds, made of teeth and antler, come from West European late Upper Paleolithic sites.”

“The only Paleolithic bird carvings from Asia are those found at Mal’ta and Buret’, two neighboring Siberian sites located west of Lake Baikal. They mainly consist of pendants made of ivory and antler representing flying waterfowls.”

“The Lingjing figurine is the only Paleolithic 3D object carved in burnt bone and representing a bird standing on a pedestal,” they said.

“It is also the only Paleolithic carving for which, thanks to its exceptional state of preservation, the final stages of manufacture could be documented in detail.”

The research was published in the journal PLoS ONE.


Z. Li et al. 2020. A Paleolithic bird figurine from the Lingjing site, Henan, China. PLoS ONE 15 (6): e0233370; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0233370

Read More