An etched bone fragment from the Middle Paleolithic period found in central Israel.
A bone fragment, marked with symbols, was found in early 2021 in the Ramie region of Israel. At approximately 120,000 years old, it is possibly the earliest evidence of human use of symbols ever found. As such, it is an important clue to how symbolic expression developed.
The bone is from an auroch. Aurochs were fierce, wild cattle, closer in size to modern elephants than cows, but the ancestors of modern, domesticated cattle. Aurochs are mentioned several times in the Bible, sometimes translated as “wild ox.” Attempts were made to save the Aurochs, including restrictions on hunting, but they went extinct in Poland in 1627. This was probably the first extinction that humans observed and tried to prevent.
The find came from an excavation by archaeologists from the Hebrew University, University of Haifa, and the Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France. Dr. Iris Groman-Yaroslavski explains that the team used three-dimensional imaging, reproduction of the engravings, and analysis of miscroscopic elements, to determine that “people in prehistoric times used a sharp tool fashioned from flint rock to make the engravings.” They were also able to determine that the markings were made by a right-handed human in a single sitting.
The researchers note the importance of the artifact: “This engraving is very likely an example of symbolic activity and is the oldest known example of this form of messaging that was used in the Levant. We hypothesize that the choice of this particular bone was related to the status of that animal in that hunting community and is indicative of the spiritual connection that the hunters had with the animals they killed.” It is the oldest symbolic engraving ever found in the Levant. They hope further research can reveal what the symbols were meant to convey.
Epigraphers have a hard enough time tracing the evolution and spread of ancient writing systems. How do linguistic scholars conceive of the languages of our preliterate ancestors? After identifying patterns in the evolution of language, linguists can reverse the process to recreate ancient sound systems. This involves analysis of large quantities of “Big Data;”
In the BAR article “What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription,”* epigraphy scholar Christopher Rollston asks a seemingly straightforward question: What is the oldest Hebrew inscription? His examination requires him to address the fundamental questions of epigraphy. Is a text written in Hebrew script necessarily in the Hebrew language? And was the Hebrew language originally written in an alphabet that predates Hebrew script? Christopher Rollston examined four contenders for the oldest Hebrew inscription—the Qeiyafa Ostracon, Gezer Calendar, Tel Zayit Abecedary and Izbet Zayit Abecedary—to explore the interplay between early Hebrew script and language.
This Jerusalem Proto-Canaanite inscription precedes the development of the Paleo-Hebrew script, which was used by the Israelites until the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. When the Judean exiles returned from Babylon, they brought back the square Aramaic script, which ultimately replaced the Paleo-Hebrew script. Both the Paleo-Hebrew and the square Aramaic scripts, however, were used together for hundreds of years.
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