A tiny object with no practical use has researchers all worked up. It’s a fragment of bone 2 inches long with deep marks carved into it found in a Neanderthal cave, and it might be the world’s oldest piece of art. The bone, thought to be 51,000 years old, came from a giant ice age deer, an animal that would have been rare at that time in the Harz Mountains of Germany where it was found, NBC News reports. The cave where it was found along with some deer shoulder blades and the skull of a cave bear, is called the Einhornhöhle, or Unicorn Cave. The cave, where Neanderthals once lived, is so well-known that it’s a tourist destination.
The bone fragment can be arranged to stand upright. It has deep upside-down V shapes carved into it—so deep researchers think that it was probably boiled to soften it for carving. Researchers think the pattern had a symbolic meaning. And its age, well before Homo Sapiens’ arrival in that part of Europe, suggests that the Neanderthal artist came by the idea for the carving without any human help. Scientists have been debating whether Neanderthals used symbols and made art. This piece makes "Neanderthal’s awareness of symbolic meaning very likely," Dirk Leder wrote in Nature Ecology & Evolution. (Read more science stories.)