Biology Magazine

World’s Oldest Rock Symbols?

By Cris

The holy grail of archaeology is to discover the earliest evidence of symbolic thought in humans. Generally speaking, symbolism means that one thing represents or stands for another. In its most basic form, symbolic thought is iconic: an object in the world (e.g., rock) is related to an idea in the mind (e.g., person).

Because this relationship works in two directions, we are immediately confronted with a classic chicken-egg problem. I may see a rock that looks like a person and this may trigger thinking about a person. Or, I may be thinking about a person and see in a rock the figure of a person.

Which came first doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that this conceptual capacity is essential for language. Rock symbols provide a foundation of sorts for word symbols. But the difference between the two is significant.

Rock symbols resemble something in the world; this resemblance triggers the conceptual back and forth between object and idea. Word symbols do not resemble things in the world; there is no natural or causal relationship between word and object. The relationship is arbitrary.

With this brief lesson in semiotics, we can understand why archaeologists get so excited about really old rocks that have been altered or worked to look like people. There are two leading contenders for the oldest known rock symbols. The first is known as the Tan-Tan figurine from Morocco and is believed to be 400,000 years old:

World’s Oldest Rock Symbols?

There are eight grooves on this rock and Robert Bednarik (2003) asserts that five were incised by human hand. Bednarik’s microscopic examination also revealed traces of what he believes to be pigment or red ocher. I am not aware of anyone else who has studied the Tan-Tan, so cannot say whether Bednarik’s claim has been accepted. Because the Tan-Tan was dated on the basis of surrounding lithics (Middle Acheulian), there may be questions about its age.

The second contender is known as the Berekhat Ram figurine from Israel and is believed to be 230,000 years old:

World’s Oldest Rock Symbols?
Here is an artist’s rendering which perhaps emphasizes certain features:

World’s Oldest Rock Symbols?
Because the Berekhat Ram was found in situ between volcanic layers, the dating is fairly certain. The controversy has been over whether the lines on it are the result of natural processes or human activity. The most recent study (d’Errico & Nowell 2000) suggests the Berekhat Ram was in fact deliberately modified.

If we assume for the sake of argument that both objects were in fact modified and curated by humans, I think it important to ask what they represent. The Tan-Tan has an anthropomorphic shape but not much else. The Berekhat Ram has an anthropomorphic shape and appears to be female.

Beyond this, not much can be said. They may have been ritual objects or nothing more than pleasing reminders. Their importance lies in the fact they may be symbols, not what those symbols may speculatively represent.


Bednarik, R. (2003). A Figurine from the African Acheulian. Current Anthropology, 44 (3), 405-413 DOI: 10.1086/374900

d’Errico, Francesco, & Nowell, April (2000). A New Look at the Berekhat Ram Figurine: Implications for the Origins of Symbolism. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 10, 123-167 : 10.1017/S0959774300000056


You Might Also Like :

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

These articles might interest you :

  • Tresemme Botanique Detox and Restore Shampoo | Review

    Tresemme Botanique Detox Restore Shampoo Review

    Tresemme BotaniqueLuckily, I haven't faced many issues with hair and I didn't bother much for a good hair care routine. 😄 My hair care routine was only oiling... Read more

    8 hours, 27 minutes ago by   Niharika Verma
  • Refrain


    It's always nice to experience something out of the ordinary in St Helens, and on this occasion it was quite extraordinary as I took to the streets to view a... Read more

    9 hours, 3 minutes ago by   Mike Lindley
  • Republique, the Pub & Terrace Lounge…!

    Republique, Terrace Lounge…!

    How many of you have that one favourite restaurant that you always visit because you know that nothing can go wrong with your food you are happy while... Read more

    10 hours, 11 minutes ago by   Anithanayak
  • Ragin' Ripple Sale Happening Now! Plus Steak, Doublestone and the New Thin...

    Ragin' Ripple Sale Happening Now! Plus Steak, Doublestone Thin Lizzy Tribute with Mothership!

    Time for a huge, ragin' Ripple sale!Let's clear some space in the warehouse for some new, killer releases comin' down the line.While supplies last: $5 CD's and... Read more

    10 hours, 12 minutes ago by   Ripplemusic
  • Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race 2017 – Day Two Review

    Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race 2017 Review

    Berghaus Dragon's Back Race 2017 - Day Two Review Start - Hafod y Llan Campsite Finish- Vanner Farm Campsite Distance covered - 58km Height climbed - 3,600m... Read more

    11 hours, 2 minutes ago by   Abichal
  • And Now for Something Completely Different

    Something Completely Different

    A Black Vulture (and a road-kill groundhog.) As I was driving to the grocery store on Monday, I saw a flock of these birds, maybe twenty, at the roadside and wa... Read more

    11 hours, 42 minutes ago by   Vickilane
  • Creamy Chive & Cheddar Dressing

    Creamy Chive Cheddar Dressing

    We have a bank holiday coming up next weekend and the good news is we are actually expecting some pretty decent weather with it! Salad weather! Yay! I love, LOV... Read more

    12 hours, 16 minutes ago by   Mariealicerayner