New Light on the Human History of Symbols

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From Tali Aronsky, a spokesperson at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem:

While scientists and historians have long surmised that etchings on stones and bones have been used as a form of symbolism dating back as early as the Middle Paleolithic period (250,000-45,000 BCE), findings to support that theory are extremely rare.

A recent discovery by archeologists from the Hebrew University and the University of Haifa alongside a team from the Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France have uncovered evidence of what may be the earliest-known use of symbols.  The symbols were found on a bone fragment in the Ramle region in central Israel and are believed to be approximately 120,000 years old.

Remarkably the fragment remained largely intact and the researchers were able to detect six similar etchings on one side of the bone, leading them to believe that they were in the possession of something which held symbolic or spiritual significance.  The find which was recently published in the scientific journal ‘Quaternary International’ was discovered in a trove of flint tools and animal bones exposed at a site during archaeological excavations.

Dr. Yossi Zaidner of the Institute of Archeology at Hebrew University says that the site was likely used as a camp or a meeting place for Paleolithic hunters who would then slaughter the animals they caught at that location. The identified bone is believed to have come from an extinct large wild cattle, a species which was very common in the Middle East at that time.

The paper’s authors stress that their analysis makes it very clear that the engravings were definitely intentionally man made and could not have been the result of animal butchering activities or natural processes over the millennia. They pointed to the fact that the grooves of the engravings discovered are in a clear U-shape and wide and deep enough that they could not have been made by anything other than humans intent on carving lines into the bone.

Ms. Marion Prévost from the Institute of Archeology at Hebrew University says that every indication was that there was a definite message behind what was carved into the bone. “We reject any assumption that these grooves were some sort of inadvertent doodling.  That type of artwork wouldn’t have seen this level of attention to detail.”

Full study:

"Early evidence for symbolic behavior in the Levantine Middle Paleolithic: A 120 ka old engraved aurochs bone shaft from the open-air site of Nesher Ramla, Israel"

Quaternary International, Available online 20 January 2021

Authors:  Marion Prévost, Iris Groman-Yarosklavski, Kathryn M. Crater Gershtein, José- Miguel Tejero, Yossi Zaidner



During the Middle Paleolithic in Eurasia, the production of deliberate, abstract engraving on bone or stone materials is a rare phenomenon. It is now widely accepted that both anatomically modern humans and hominins that predate them have produced deliberate engravings associated with symbolic behavior. Within the Levantine Middle Paleolithic context, only five examples of intentional engravings are known thus far. In this paper, we present an aurochs bone fragment that bears six deep, sub-parallel incisions, recovered at the open-air Middle Paleolithic site of Nesher Ramla in Israel. The item, found in an anthropogenic accumulation of artifacts in Unit III of the site, was dated to early Marine Isotope Stage 5 (ca. 120 ka). Unit III is a stratigraphically well-defined layer that is characterized by intense on-site knapping activities with predominance of the centripetal Levallois reduction method and by intense exploitation of aurochs and tortoises. This paper presents a multidisciplinary study of the bone and the incisions, including zooarchaeological, macro- and microscopic analyses, Scanning Electron Microscope analysis and experimental replications. The macroscopic and microscopic attributes of the incisions, and the comparisons with experimental material exclude a taphonomic or utilitarian origin of the incisions. The study indicates that the engravings were most likely produced by a right-handed individual in a single working session. The morphology and characteristics of the incisions, especially the presence of longitudinal polish and striations in one of the incisions, suggest that they were made by a flint artifact, likely retouched. The engraved bone from Unit III at Nesher Ramla is one of the oldest deliberate abstract manifestations produced by Middle Paleolithic and Middle Stone Age hominins and the oldest known so far in the Levant. As such, it has major implications for our understanding of the emergence and early stages of the development of human symbolic behavior.


  • Middle paleolithic
  • Aurochs bone
  • Engraved object
  • Symbolic mediated behavior
  • Non-utilitarian object

Photographs of the engravings on the Nesher Ramla bone may be seen here.  What strikes me above all is that they do not appear to be pictographic, but are nonetheless intended to convey information (which will be the subject of our next post).

[Thanks to Jeffrey Tigay]


  1. Dan Milton said,

    February 6, 2021 @ 11:10 am

    I found a picture not behind a paywall.

  2. David Marjanović said,

    February 6, 2021 @ 12:25 pm

    "Etchings"? Etched with an acid? …Oh, "engravings". That makes sense.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 6, 2021 @ 2:55 pm

    They sure look like meaningless doodles to me. I imagine the archeologists have reasons for rejecting that possibility.

    David Marjanović: That use of "etchings" didn't bother me at all, but "the Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique" and "an extinct large wild cattle" did. Of course English isn't helpful about mentioning a single generic animal of the subgenus Bos, and the author was probably right to assume most readers wouldn't know "aurochs".

  4. Victor Mair said,

    February 6, 2021 @ 5:45 pm

    "meaningless doodles"

    They look regular and purposeful.


    They have the same height, do not wander and stray every which way. They are grouped and have spaces between them. Indeed, as soon as I saw these symbols, I was amazed at how runiform they appeared, with their pronounced vertical strokes, one of which has a branch growing off at an angle. I am NOT saying that they are runes, but they do resemble runes in certain respects.

  5. david said,

    February 6, 2021 @ 6:11 pm

    Reading from the I6 end it looks like 1 2 3

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 6, 2021 @ 6:40 pm

    Victor Mair: My father used to doodle concentric circles. They didn't wander and stray (though they weren't expertly drawn), and they looked regular and purposeful, but they were meaningless.

    As I said, I can imagine that there are arguments that at that point in the past, marks of that sort probably had some kind of meaning. But they look like doodles to me.

    Dan Milton: Thanks for the link.

  7. Y said,

    February 6, 2021 @ 7:57 pm

    It's certainly a remarkable find, but I am skeptical about "it has major implications for our understanding of the emergence and early stages of the development of human symbolic behavior." Does anyone really doubt that humans with cognitive ability similar to modern ones existed by 120 ka?

  8. John Shutt said,

    February 6, 2021 @ 8:44 pm

    @Y: "Does anyone really doubt that humans with cognitive ability similar to modern ones existed by 120 ka?" — Well, I expect they existed by then, but it's one thing to have the ability, quite another to figure out how to apply it in a sophisticated way. My own favored scenario for the development of language has sapient humans using language with non-recursive grammar (comparable to Pirahã) for several million years before finally developing recursive grammar only about 50 ka.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    February 6, 2021 @ 9:26 pm

    John Shutt mentions humans developing recursive grammar around 50,000 years ago. A lot of other advances in cognitive ability occurred around that same time: musical instruments (flutes), painterly skills, etc. This was the time of Cro Magnon man.

  10. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    February 6, 2021 @ 9:29 pm

    The use of the word “doodle” and the dismissive implication here bothers me. In part, that is because when I doodle, I make deliberate patterns or images. They might not have meaning as such, but they do have pattern.

    At the same time, the markings cited do look deliberate and have a pattern, but from my limited knowledge, I am not sure how it can be said they definitely have an underlying meaning in the way I understand symbols used for writing have symbols. For instance, it appears that various drawings of aurochs evolved into the letter A. (For instance, see )

    In this instance, I am eager to believe the claims made for this bone object, but at the same time I wonder if, as people who have been accustomed from their earliest years to seeing symbols, we are attributing meaning to a pattern of marks when the item in question may be “look at these marks I made,” leading to reasoning about “when I make this mark I will think of this thing,” which eventually can lead to art, pictographs, and writing. I would not call “look at these marks I made” a form of doodling in a society that has no split between “these marks I made represent words” and “these marks I made are symbols,” or “these marks I made are art.”

    What seems clear is that the person who made the marks did so deliberately, showing that the potential for symbolism and writing existed. Whether the meaning was “this many hunters are here” or “this many head of aurochs were hunted down” or “this looks like grass bending in the wind” or “this is my bone” or something else we will not know, and it will be surprising if we can ever definitively say what the goal of the mark creator was or what the marks mean. This discovery is exciting but frustrating.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    February 6, 2021 @ 9:48 pm

    The marks on the bone discussed in this post also remind me of the symbols in Alexander Marshack's The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man's First Art, Symbol and Notation (1972), in which he describes and analyzes Upper Paleolithic notation systems, with lots of vertical lines, grouped and embellished in different ways (including branches coming off at an angle).

  12. Gunnar H said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 1:53 am

    Like Jerry Friedman, I reacted to "an extinct large wild cattle," since in my mind domestication or use as livestock is the primary defining characteristic of cattle, and their bovine nature secondary. This of course is supported etymologically, as well as through association with the related words "chattel," "capital."

    I may be influenced by the fact that the corresponding word in Norwegian, fe (corresponding to OE feoh), can mean livestock in general, with storfe ("great cattle": cows), småfe ("lesser cattle": sheep and goats), and fjærfe ("feathered cattle": poultry). But Wiktionary suggests that it is in fact the case in actual English usage as well, giving examples where it is used for other livestock (horses, in both cases, though it claims that pigs or sheep can also be referred to thus).

  13. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 4:23 am

    Barbara Phillips Long ..

    yes, was he just whittling the time away (on his porch?)

  14. Rose Eneri said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 8:45 am

    I also do not like the use of the term "etchings" to describe the marks on the bone. The study seems to use this term interchangeably with the better term "incisions." To me an etching is shallow, more like a scraping. These marks are deep and would require much more time and effort to produce than etching.

    Deeply scoring a bone, which also would have resulted in blunting a valuable carving tool, must have been done for a significant purpose.

    It seems to me that the earliest use of symbolic markings by humans would have been on the ground. These would not have survived. I imagine a map might have been the most likely first image. ("Tomorrow we go here" or "We went that a way.") So, human use of symbols would have significantly predated the more permanent evidence we can find today.

  15. TonyG said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 10:33 am

    Perhaps the bone was used as some kind of tool — for making fire, maybe, or for stretching animal guts in a regular pattern for some reason? I don't know, but those grooves are not very convincing as symbols.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 12:24 pm

    Gunnar H: My main problem with "an extinct large wild cattle" is that "cattle" isn't singular in English. "Wild ox" is sometimes used for the aurochs.

    No doubt modern examples of "cattle" referring to non-bovine animals can be found, but I'm sure that they're very rare and I'm not the only person who would consider them erroneous.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 1:16 pm

    "an extinct large wild cattle" — how about "an extinct large wild bovid" ?

  18. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 1:47 pm

    This is the most interesting thing I’ve read in years:

    “Domestic cattle possess lateralized cognitive processing of human handlers. This has been recently demonstrated in the preference for large groups of cattle to view a human closely within the predominantly left visual field. By contrast, the same stimulus viewed predominantly within the right visual field promotes a significantly greater frequency of dispersal from a standing position, including flight responses.”

    Whoever came up with this idea, just by virtue of even having posed the question, is necessarily a genius. It’s like watching the apple fall and coming up with a theory of gravity, except without all of the stealing-from-Leibnitz part.

  19. Daniel Barkalow said,

    February 8, 2021 @ 2:31 pm

    Those actually look to me most like someone practicing strokes used in writing, rather than this being an actual message, because they're so uniform. Language, after all, rarely consists of the same unit 5 out of 6 times.

    Or maybe it says "aaAaaa", and the person who carved them was dying?

  20. DaveK said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 12:27 am

    Can the marks be in a deliberate pattern without being symbolic?
    To me, doodles or whittling imply something done for the pure enjoyment of using a tool on the material.
    These could be tally marks, which are certainly symbolic, but they could just be a decoration—the carver got some satisfaction out of seeing the regularity of the marks. Does someone know if the creation of a purposeful pattern is considered symbolism?

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 8:40 am

    The late Roy Harris, in his Origins of Writing (Duckfield, 1986), hypothesises (quite convincingly, to my mind) that writing has its origins in tallies — the keeping of records of stock counts, etc. If one is willing to accept this as a possibility, then I would suggest that it is by no means impossible that the Ramle find is an example of a very early tally.

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