In 1894, gold prospectors digging a peat bog outside the Russian city of Yekaterinburg uncovered a 5-meter-long carved wooden statue. On both the front and back of the piece, which had been methodically sanded into a plank, there were apparent human faces and hands, as well as zigzag lines and other bizarre patterns. It had a human-like cranium and an open mouth shaped like an “o.” The monument was maintained fascinating for more than a century in a Yekaterinburg museum, assuming it was just a few thousand years old
The figure was carved 11,600 years ago from a single Larchwood log, according to an article published in The Journal Antiquity on April 24, 2018, making it one of the world’s earliest examples of monumental sculpture. According to the writers, the Shigir Idol is comparable to the stone sculptures of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, which is commonly considered the earliest enormous ceremonial monument, in age and appearance but not in substance. Both monuments depart from traditional portrayals of the glacial period.
The idol also demonstrates that large-scale, detailed art developed in several locations and that it was created by hunter-gatherers, not later agricultural societies, as previously assumed. “We must infer that hunter-gatherers used complex rituals and forms of self-expression.” “Ritual did not begin with farmers, but with hunter-gatherers,” says Thomas Herberger of the University of Göttingen in Germany, co-author and archaeologist.
In the 1990s, the idol was radiocarbon dating for the first time, yielding a startlingly youthful age of 9800 years. Many scholars, on the other hand, scoffed at the result, calling it implausibly ancient. They said that hunter-gatherers couldn’t have created such a large sculpture or had the rich symbolic imagination needed to decorate it. In 2014, new samples were collected. Team members announced (before the data were peer-reviewed) during a press conference in Yekaterinburg in 2015 that these samples indicated even earlier dates, putting the sculpture’s age back 1500 years to a period when the world was still recovering from the previous ice age.
The new dates are based on samples taken from the log’s core, which had not been corrupted by previous preservation efforts. “The older [the date] gets the farther you go inside—very likely some form of preservative or adhesive was employed,” 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 research. In the eighteenth century, an antler carving uncovered near the original discovery site showed dates that were similar to the discoveries, giving weight to the findings.
The monument was created during a period of postglacial Eurasia when trees were spreading over the continent. According to Peter Vang Petersen, an archaeologist from Copenhagen’s National Museum who was not part in the study, as the environment changed, so did art, probably to assist people deal with the unfamiliar forest circumstances they were encountering. “At the end of the ice age, all Paleolithic figurative art and realistic creatures painted in caves and carved in the rock come to an end.” “After that,” Petersen adds, “you have extremely stylized patterns that are tough to understand.” “They were still hunters, but their outlook on life was different.”
Experts debated the meaning of the Shigir symbols at a symposium in Yekaterinburg in 2017, comparing them to other works of art from the historical period and more recent anthropological examples. Nearly 2500 kilometers distant, in Göbekli, hunter-gatherers gathered for ceremonies and sculpted equal stylized animals on stone pillars over 5 meters high.
Totem poles, which are used to worship gods or respect ancestors in the Pacific Northwest, have a more contemporary analogue, according to Herberger. According to co-author and archaeologist Mikhail Zhilin of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, the figure might represent local woods spirits or demons. The zigzag engravings, according to Petersen, might be a type of “Keep out!” warning, suggesting a hazardous or restricted area.
The civilization that gave birth to the idol is beginning to emerge from the shadows. Zhilin has returned to Shigir and a neighboring bog site with pumps and special equipment in order to dig out artifacts buried several meters deep in the flooded earth. Hundreds of small bone points and daggers from the same time period, as well as elk antlers etched with animal faces, were discovered by him and his team.
They’ve also discovered a plethora of ancient carpentry artifacts, including stone adzes, various woodworking tools, and even a pine log fragment smoothed with an adze. Zhilin says, “They knew how to work with wood.” Stone was not the only material used to create art and architecture in the past; it was just the most likely to survive, which may have warped our understanding of prehistory. “Wood doesn’t survive very long,” Herberger says. “I’m sure there were a lot more of them that didn’t get preserved.”