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From a cave in southwestern Germany, archaeologists have unearthed the oldest known piece of figurative art. More than an ancient artistic impulse, it may signify a profound change in modern human brains.

Carved from ivory and depicting a woman with exaggerated sexual features, the pinkie-sized sculpture is 36,000 years old, or about 5,000 years older than the next-earliest piece of figurative art.

Though 77,000-year-old carvings have been found in South Africa, they consist of cross-hatched lines. Such abstractions are relatively simple compared to representational art, which requires high levels of cognition to both conceive and make.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the rise of figurine-carving modern human cultures in Europe coincided with the decline of Neanderthals. Some anthropologists suspect that humans of the era experienced a leap in mental abilities, fueled by random genetic mutation or the neurological nourishment of language and culture.

“The advent of fully representational, ‘figurative’ art seems at present to be a European phenomenon, without any documented parallels in Africa or elsewhere earlier than about 30,000 years ago,” writes University of Cambridge archaeologist Paul Mellars in a commentary accompanying the discovery, published Wednesday in Nature.

“How far this ‘symbolic explosion’ associated with the origins and dispersal of our species reflects a major, mutation-driven reorganization in the cognitive capacities of the human brain — perhaps associated with a similar leap forward in the complexity of language — remains a fascinating and contentious issue,” he wrote.


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