Bilzingsleben Engravings

Engraved elephant shin bone
Acheulean art: 350,000-400,000 BC

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Elephant shinbone engraved with abstract pattern by early humans at Bilzingsleben
Tibia of an elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) decorated with deliberate linear engravings, from the Bilzingsleben site, Thuringia, Germany. Image by DagdaMor. (CC BY 4.0)

Excavation and Discovery

The Bilzingsleben archaeological site is located in Thuringia, central Germany. It has been a source of ancient human bones, fossils and artifacts ever since the 13th century.

Today, it may be the home of the world's earliest paleolithic art, in the form of a primitive bone engraving.

In 1969, during a routine investigation, the paleontologist Dietrich Mania (b.1938) stumbled across a completely preserved Stone Age encampment of the Acheulean culture, which yielded a large quantity of stone tools, artifacts and animal bones.

H. Erectus Bilzingslebenensis

A full excavation of the Bilzingsleben site was duly launched in 1971, and the following year Mania unearthed a fragment of a human occipital bone (which forms the back and base of the skull and encircles the spinal cord).

To date, 28 skull remains, part of a jaw bone and 9 individual teeth of this early human have been recovered.

They were duly classified as H. erectus bilzingslebenensis by the Czech scholar Emanuel Vlcek (1925-2006), professor at the Institute of Anatomy at Charles University, Prague.

There were strong similarities between the new human and the H. erectus skull fossil known as Olduvai Huminid 9, from East Africa.

Archaeology Explained

For a short guide to archaeological stuff, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient.

World's Second Oldest Engravings

In addition to the human bones and artifacts, researchers also recovered a quantity of large animal bones.

One particular bone fragment belonged to a forest elephant shinbone (tibia), whose surface was marked by a number of engraved lines.

The engraved pattern - potentially an extraordinary example of prehistoric art - took the form of two groups of 7 and 14 parallel lines etched into the surface.

The linear markings were separated by regular spacing, were of approximately equal length, and their grooves had similar V-like cross-sections.

The engraved tibia was dated to between 350,000 and 400,000 BC. This would make the engravings the oldest art in the world, after the Trinil Shell Engravings (540,000-430,000 BC) from Java.

In 1988, Mania published images of additional unmistakably deliberate engravings on bone artifacts found at the site all dating to between 320,000 and 410,000 BC.

His preliminary findings were that these abstract markings suggested the existence of advanced human traits, including both abstract thinking and language.

If true, then the chronology of Stone Age culture will need to be seriously rewritten.

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Are the Engravings Really Art?

Mania and others believe that the bone engravings are clear evidence of the sort of abstract thought we refer to as art.

Understandably, given the extreme age of these scratchings, there are doubters. Their two main arguments are as follows:

First, they say the markings are doodles and not deliberate. This has been refuted by lasermicroscopic analysis.

Second, they claim the Bilzingsleben markings and others like them are incidental results of utilitarian activities. This too has been refuted (by the Australian scholar Robert G Bednarik) as follows.

All this effectively negates the utilitarian argument.

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Lastly, most archaeologists are accustomed (if not conditioned) to see consecutive species of humans getting smarter and more sophisticated. Evolution means progress, right?

Not according to John Feliks, an expert in early human cognition, who considers that the engravings from Bilzingsleben, show that there has been "no increase in the innate intelligence of H. sapiens individuals over H. erectus individuals despite a 200,000-300,000 year time span" during which H. sapiens could have accomplished this.

Feliks says "all individuals of the genus Homo use intelligence either to the degree they choose, or the degree to which they are constitutionally capable. However, the intelligence of the genus as a whole never changes."

Note: To understand how the Bilzingsleben markings fit into the evolution of Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Are We Getting More Intelligent?

It seems counter-intuitive to think that humans are not becoming more intelligent, until you consider the example of chess.

Seventy years ago, chess knowledge was severely restricted. Few chess books were published and important games could remain unpublicized for months. There were no computers to help players navigate difficult openings and endings, and no databases to store and analyze the games of one's opponents.

Today, however, chess news and knowledge is shared instantly around the globe, while computers can unravel the most complex positions in seconds.

As a result, players are becoming grandmasters at an earlier and earlier age.

Does this mean chessplayers are becoming more intelligent? I don't think so.


(1) "Deliberate engravings on bone artefacts of Homo Erectus". Mania, D and Mania, U, 1988. Rock Art Research 5, 91-97.
(2) "The Graphics of Bilzingsleben: Sophistication and subtlety in the mind of Homo erectus." Feliks, J. 2011. In Oosterbeek, L. and C. Fidalgo (eds), Proceedings of the XV UISPP World Congress (Lisbon, 2006), British Archaeological Reports International Series 2224, Oxford, pp. 71-91.
(3) "The Bilzingsleben Engravings in the Context of Lower Paleolithic Paleoart" (2015). Robert G. Bednarik. (PDF).

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