In 1894, gold prospectors digging up a peat bog near the Russian city of Yekaterinburg unearthed something bizarre: a carved wooden idol 5 meters long. Carefully smoothed into a plank, the piece was covered front and back with recognizable human faces and hands, along with zigzag lines and other mysterious details. It also had a recognizably human head, with its mouth open in an “o.” For more than a century, the statue was displayed as a curiosity in a Yekaterinburg museum, assumed to be at most a few thousand years old.
This week, a paper published in the journal Antiquity argues that the statue was crafted from a single larchwood log 11,600 years ago, making it one of the world’s oldest examples of monumental art. In age and appearance although not material, the authors write, the so-called Shigir Idol resembles the stone sculptures of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, which are often cited as the first monumental ritual structures. Both monuments represent a leap beyond the naturalistic images of the ice age.
The idol also shows that large-scale, complex art emerged in more than one place—and that it was the handiwork of hunter-gatherers and not, as was once assumed, of later farming societies. “We have to conclude hunter-gatherers had complex ritual and expression of ideas. Ritual doesn’t start with farming, but with hunter-gatherers,” says Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the University of Göttingen in Germany and a co-author of the paper.
The first radiocarbon dating of the idol, in the 1990s, yielded a startlingly early date: 9800 years old. But many scholars rejected the result as implausibly old. They argued that hunter-gatherers couldn’t have produced such a large sculpture, nor have had the complex symbolic imagination to decorate it.
New samples were taken in 2014. At a 2015 press conference in Yekaterinburg, team members announced (before the results were peer reviewed), that these samples revealed even older dates, moving the age of the sculpture back 1500 years, to a time when the world was still transitioning out of the last ice age.
The new dates come from samples taken from the core of the log, uncontaminated by earlier efforts to conserve the wood. “The further you go inside, the older [the date] becomes—it’s very indicative some sort of preservative or glue was used” after discovery, says Olaf Jöris, an archaeologist at the Monrepos Archaeological Research Centre and Museum for Human Behavioural Evolution in Neuwied, Germany, who wasn’t involved with the study. An antler carving discovered near the original find spot in the 19th century yielded similar dates, adding credibility to the result.
The date places the statue at a time when forests were spreading across a warmer, postglacial Eurasia. As the landscape changed, art did, too, perhaps as a way to help people come to grips with the unfamiliar forest environments they were navigating, says Peter Vang Petersen, an archaeologist at The National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen who was not involved with the study. “Figurative art in the Paleolithic and naturalistic animals painted in caves and carved in rock all stop at the end of the ice age. From then on, you have very stylized patterns that are hard to interpret,” Petersen says. “They’re still hunters, but they had another view of the world.”
At a conference in Yekaterinburg last year, experts debated the meaning of the Shigir symbols, comparing them to other art from the period and more recent ethnographic examples. The most similar finds from that time are those at Göbekli, more than 2500 kilometers away, where hunter-gatherers gathered for rituals and carved similar stylized animals on stone pillars more than 5 meters high.
Terberger sees a more recent parallel: the totem poles of the Pacific Northwest, meant to honor gods or venerate ancestors. Co-author and archaeologist Mikhail Zhilin of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow says the idol might depict local forest spirits or demons. Petersen suggests that the zigzag carvings could be a kind of “Keep out!” sign intended to mark a dangerous or taboo space.
The society that carved the idol is starting to come out of the shadows. Equipped with pumps and special equipment, Zhilin has returned to Shigir and another bog site about 50 kilometers away to excavate finds buried several meters deep in the waterlogged soil. He and his team have found hundreds of small bone points and daggers from the same time period, along with elk antlers carved with animal faces.
They’ve also found ample evidence of prehistoric carpentry: stone adzes, other woodworking tools, and even part of a pine log smoothed with an adze. “They knew how to work wood perfectly,” Zhilin says. The idol is a reminder that stone wasn’t the only material people in the past used to make art and monuments—just the one most likely to survive, possibly skewing our understanding of prehistory. “Wood normally doesn’t last,” Terberger says. “I expect there were many more of these and they’re not preserved.”