Register for an account

X

Enter your name and email address below.

Your email address is used to log in and will not be shared or sold. Read our privacy policy.

X

Website access code

Enter your access code into the form field below.

If you are a Zinio, Nook, Kindle, Apple, or Google Play subscriber, you can enter your website access code to gain subscriber access. Your website access code is located in the upper right corner of the Table of Contents page of your digital edition.

Planet Earth

Art or Lump?

Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

This tiny lump of volcanic rock, in which some claim to perceive a female figure, could be the oldest work of art in the world, or it could be a tiny lump of volcanic rock. Archeologist April Nowell of the University of Pennsylvania recently tried to settle the debate about the 233,000-year-old stone, found in Israel 15 years ago. "It's really not that impressive," admits Nowell. "When I first saw it in a journal, I was pretty sure it was just a rock." To find out if the grooves on the rock were created by natural processes, she compared the "figurine" to other volcanic rocks from the area under an electron microscope. The grooves on volcanic rocks are usually parallel, Nowell observed, and only on one side of the rock. None of them encircled the rock like the groove that makes the neck of the figurine. Grooves in volcanic rock also have gaps and microfoldings, signs of rapid heating and cooling. The neck groove had none. The microscope also revealed tiny striations, like those made by a stone tool. Nowell concludes that the rock was modified by someone, most likely Homo erectus, wielding a stone tool. But it's difficult to say if the carver was consciously forming a human shape or merely scratching at the rock. If the rock is indeed a form of artistic expression, then archeologists have to fill a gap of nearly 200,000 apparently artless years that follow. "It's idiosyncratic, it's interesting, it's anomalous," says Nowell. "And it's definitely going to make us do a lot more research."

2 Free Articles Left

Want it all? Get unlimited access when you subscribe.

Subscribe

Already a subscriber? Register or Log In

Want unlimited access?

Subscribe today and save 70%

Subscribe

Already a subscriber? Register or Log In