How the World’s Oldest Wooden Sculpture Is Reshaping Prehistory

And what do the engravings mean? Svetlana Savchenko, the artifact’s curator and an author on the study, speculates that the eight faces may well contain encrypted information about ancestor spirits, the boundary between earth and sky, or a creation myth. Although the monument is unique, Dr. Savchenko sees a resemblance to the stone sculptures of what has long been considered the world’s oldest temple, Göbekli Tepe, whose ruins are in present-day Turkey, some 1,550 miles away. The temple’s stones were carved around 11,000 years ago, which makes them 1,500 years younger than the Shigir Idol.

Marcel Niekus, an archaeologist with the Foundation for Stone Age Research in the Netherlands, said that the updated, older age of the Shigir Idol confirmed that it “represents a unique and unparalleled find in Europe. One could wonder how many similar pieces have been lost over time due to poor preservation conditions.”

The similarity of the geometric motifs to others across Europe in that era, he added, “is evidence of long-distance contacts and a shared sign language over vast areas. The sheer size of the idol also seems to indicate it was meant as a marker in the landscape that was supposed to be seen by other hunter-gatherer groups — perhaps marking the border of a territory, a warning or welcoming sign.”

Dr. Zhilin has spent much of the last 12 years investigating other peat bogs in the Urals. At one site he uncovered ample evidence of prehistoric carpentry — woodworking tools and a massive pine plank, roughly 11,300 years old, that he believes had been smoothed with an adze. “There are many more unexplored bogs in the mountains,” Dr. Zhilin said. Unfortunately, there are no ongoing excavations.

During a recent video conversation from his home in Moscow, Dr. Zhilin asked his interviewer in the United States: “What do you think is the hardest thing to find in the Stone Age archaeology of the Urals?”

A pause: Sites?

“No,” he said, sighing softly. “Funding.”

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