Ancient art often has a different look to how art is made today. More primitive tools, a different connection to nature, and a lack of established art styles meant that many of the oldest examples of art were created in simplified designs. And, this certainly holds true for a recently-discovered ancient, carved deer bone found in central Germany. Dated to more 50,000 years ago, it’s now one of the oldest known pieces of art on the planet. But, it wasn’t even created by humans.

Unicorn Cave in Germany
Via: Wiki Commons

The bone was found in Unicorn Cave (Einhornhöhle) in West Harz, Germany. The bone is decorated in a chevron pattern that was created using 10 slashes engraved or carved at different angles. This piece is made from the toe bone (or phalanx) of a deer and may have been used for ritual purposes. The results of a study of the bone were recently published in the scientific journal, Nature Ecology & Evolution.

In the late 1800s that cave was discovered to be filled with ancient animal bones and since then the cave has yielded many other finds from antiquity as well. This particular carving was analyzed using radiocarbon dating and found to be at least 51,000 years old.

The bone came from the toe of Megaloceros giganteus, a large species of archaic deer also known as Irish elk. This species had incredibly large antlers and was one of the biggest deer to have ever walked the Earth. Given the size of this majestic animal it seems likely that the carving of the bone held symbolic or religious significance.

Unicorn Cave carved deer phalanx
Via: Axel Hindemith/Wiki Commons

Researchers from the University of Göttingen and the Lower Saxony State Office for Heritage recreated the conditions needed to carve a bone like this with the simple tools that would have been available more than 50,000 years ago and they found that the deer phalanx would have been boiled before carving to soften it up.

The oldest evidence of humans in Europe dates to around 46,000 years ago, meaning that this art piece was most likely carved by Neanderthals, who arrived in Europe 400,000 years ago. It is a common misconception that Neanderthals were simple, aggressive, or even of lower intelligence than humans.

Neanderthals were once thought to have gone extinct either because of lack of resources due to Homo sapiens moving into their homelands. But, it is now established that they interbred with humans, which accounts for the fact that some modern humans have discernible Neanderthal DNA. Since the first discovery of the Neanderthals artifacts associated with these hominins have shown that they enjoyed music and made bone flutes, as well as engaged in tool usage that was fairly sophisticated for the time.

microCT scan of carved bone found in Neanderthal cave in Germany
MicroCT scan of the item. Via: A. Tröller-Reimer /D. Leder/NLD

Project leader, Thomas Terberger, said that the find, “shows that Neanderthals were already able to independently produce patterns on bones and probably also communicate using symbols thousands of years before the arrival of modern humans in Europe.” He went on to say that Neanderthal artistic styles “developed independently” from humans’ and that the phalanx “represents the oldest decorated object in Lower Saxony and one of the most important finds from the Neanderthal period in Central Europe.”

You can see a 3D video of the carved deer toe bone below.