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13,300-year-old Chinese bird figurine found in a rubbish heap

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The figurine is a small songbird, about 19.2mm (0.75 inches) long, standing on a pedestal. It’s carved from a burned, blackened fragment of animal bone. Whoever created it was probably a hunter-gatherer living at Lingjing, in northern China, near the end of the last Ice Age; their culture also made simple pottery and shaped black chert into small, sharp blades. To modern eyes, the carving looks pretty simple, but it’s the work of an artist who knew how to combine several techniques (and work with multiple tools) to shape a figure out of bone. And that means that by the time the ancient artist put tool to bone 13,300 years ago, people in northern China had already developed a long and unique tradition of carved bone art.

The songbird in the well

In 1958, a few years before archaeologists realized how much of the past lay buried at Lingjing, construction crews dug a well about 5 meters (16.4 feet) down, scooping out sediment that had accumulated during the end of the last Ice Age. The well-diggers piled all the dirt up nearby without paying much attention to the ancient potsherds, stone tools, and other artifacts mixed in with it.

When Shandong University archaeologist Zhanyang Li and colleagues found the pile in 2005, they realized that they’d been quite lucky; normally, the well-digging would have mixed together artifacts from different layers, making it impossible to tell when anything had come from. But the 1958 crew happened to dig their well in a part of the site where nothing had been buried since the Paleolithic. The only artifacts in their pile of discarded dirt were small black chert blades and coarsely made pottery—distinctive objects very similar to those found in a layer at Lingjing dating to between 14,000 and 13,000 years ago. Those were mixed with charcoal and burned animal bones that radiocarbon dated to around 13,300 years ago.

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