The Shigir Idol was discovered by gold prospectors in 1894, but dating it proved a little problematic and controversial. Now, it is believed to be one of the oldest samples of art at 11,600 years old.

The Shigir Idol

In 1894, gold prospectors near the city of Yekaterinburg in Russia unearthed not gold, but wood, and a very special wood at that. Specifically, they unearthed what's now known as the Shigir Idol, a 5-meter (16-foot) carved wooden statue that was marked with recognizable human faces and hands, as well as several intricate markings. The statue was believed to be merely a few thousand years old, and it simply sat on display at a Russian Museum for many years.

In 1990s, researchers conducted a radiocarbon analysis of the statues to finally determine how old it really is, and turned up with a dating of about 9,800 years old. At the time, the results were rather controversial and many scholars rejected the results, stating that hunter-gatherers couldn't possibly have created such a large statue, especially one with intricate carvings and designs.

In 2014, a team of researchers took samples from the sculpture's core and used newer analytical techniques to date the unadulterated samples. Instead of revealing a much earlier date than the previous controversial findings, researchers dated the sculpture to be even older than previously dated at 11,600 years old.

Creative Hunter-Gatherers?

Evidently, researchers also found that the sculpture was likely made out of a single larch tree log, and compared to the 1914 diagram which showed that the sculpture had five human-like face carvings, the 2003 and 2014 analyses reveals it actually has eight.

What do the findings reveal about the sculpture's creators? The study suggests that it was made during a post-glacial Eurasia when the world was changing and forests were expanding. As such, perhaps the art of the hunter-gatherers possibly changed to cope with the new, unfamiliar world.

"We have to conclude hunter-gatherers had complex ritual and expression of ideas. Ritual doesn't start with farming, but with hunter-gatherers," said Thomas Terberger of the University of Göttingen in Germany, coauthor of the study.

In regard to the possible meaning behind the sculptures, however, experts are still uncertain. Study researcher Mikhail Zhilin of the Russian Academy of Sciences suggests it could symbolize forest spirits or demons, while another expert, Peter Vang Petersen, suggests that the zigzag design could be a sort of warning to signify a dangerous place.

Researchers of the study have gone back to Shigir in hopes of finding more evidence that could help them understand the creators of the mysterious artifact better. So far, they have found hundreds of bone points and daggers from the same time period, as well as elk antlers with animal faces carved onto them.

As it stands, the Shigir Idol is one of the oldest known example of monumental art.

The study is published in the journal Antiquity.

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