A 5-meter-long carved wooden idol was discovered by gold prospectors excavating a peat bog near the Russian city of Yekaterinburg in 1894. The piece, which had been meticulously smoothed into a plank, was covered in unmistakable human features and hands, as well as zigzag lines and other strange patterns, on both the front and back. It also had a human-like skull and an open mouth in the shape of a “o.” The monument was kept interesting at a Yekaterinburg museum for more than a century, presuming it was only a few thousand years old.
According to an article published on April 24, 2018 in The Journal Antiquity, the figure was carved 11,600 years ago from a single Larchwood log, making it one of the world’s oldest instances of monumental art. The Shigir Idol, according to the authors, is similar in age and look, but not in material, to the stone sculptures of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, which is often regarded as the first colossal ritual constructions. Both monuments deviate from the naturalistic depictions of the glacial era.
The idol also shows that large-scale, intricate art evolved in more than one location, and that it was constructed by hunter-gatherers rather than later farming communities, as previously supposed. “We must conclude that hunter-gatherers had intricate rituals and ways of expressing themselves.” “Ritual does not begin with farmers, but with hunter-gatherers,” explains co-author and archaeologist Thomas Herberger of the University of Göttingen in Germany.
The idol was radiocarbon dated for the first time in the 1990s, indicating a stunningly young age of 9800 years. Many academics, however, dismissed the conclusion as implausibly old. They contended that hunter-gatherers could not have made such a massive sculpture, nor could they have had the rich symbolic imagination required to embellish it. New samples were taken in 2014. At a press conference in Yekaterinburg in 2015, team members declared (before the results were peer-reviewed) that these samples revealed even older dates, bringing the sculpture’s age back 1500 years to a time when the globe was still recovering from the last ice age.
The new dates are based on samples collected from the core of the log, which had not been tainted by prior attempts to preserve the wood. “The further you go inside, the older [the date] becomes—very it’s indicative some sort of preservative or glue was used,” said Olaf Jöris, an archaeologist at the Monrepos Archaeological Research Centre and Museum for Human Behavioural Evolution in Neuwied, Germany, who was not involved with the study. An antler carving unearthed near the initial find location in the eighteenth century revealed dates that were identical to the finds, lending credibility to the findings.
The statue was erected at a time when trees were expanding throughout a warmer, postglacial Eurasia. According to Peter Vang Petersen, an archaeologist from The National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen who was not involved in the research, as the landscape changed, so did art, possibly to help people cope with the foreign woodland conditions they were traversing. “Paleolithic figurative art and naturalistic animals painted in caves and carved in rock all come to an end at the end of the ice period.” “After that, you have really stylized patterns that are difficult to decipher,” Petersen explains. “They’re still hunters, but they had a different perspective on life.”
At a symposium in Yekaterinburg in 2017, experts disputed the interpretation of the Shigir symbols, comparing them to other works of art from the time and more current anthropological instances. The most similar findings from that time period are from Göbekli, almost 2500 kilometers away, where hunter-gatherers congregated for rituals and carved equal stylized creatures on stone pillars over 5 meters high.
Herberger sees a more modern parallel in the Pacific Northwest’s totem poles, which are used to worship gods or venerate ancestors. The statue could reflect local woodland spirits or devils, according to co-author and archaeologist Mikhail Zhilin of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. According to Petersen, the zigzag carvings could represent a form of “Keep out!” warning indicating a dangerous or prohibited region.
The culture that crafted the idol is emerging from the shadows. Zhilin has returned to Shigir and a nearby bog site with pumps and special equipment to dig items buried several meters deep in the soggy soil. He and his crew unearthed hundreds more tiny bone points and daggers from the same time period, as well as elk antlers engraved with animal faces.
They’ve also unearthed lots of prehistoric carpentry evidence, such as stone adzes, other woodworking tools, and even a fragment of a pine log smoothed using an adze. “They knew how to work with wood,” Zhilin explains. The idol reminds us that stone was not the only material utilized to build art and structures in the past; it was merely the most likely to survive, which may have distorted our perspective of prehistory. “Wood doesn’t generally last,” Herberger explains. “I’m sure there were many more of these, and they weren’t saved.”