World's oldest ‘emojis’ unearthed at prehistoric site in Israel

The archaeologists believe that the bone belonged to an auroch, large cattle that is considered an ancestor of cows and ox.

The bone featuring the world's oldest symbols unearthed in Israel. (photo credit: MARION PRÉVOST)
The bone featuring the world's oldest symbols unearthed in Israel.
(photo credit: MARION PRÉVOST)
Did ancient humans communicate with prehistoric “emojis” over 120,000 years ago, before any form of written language was developed? According to new research by Israeli and French scholars, the answer is yes.
Researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Haifa, alongside a team from the Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France, identified six subparallel incisions on a bone fragment uncovered in an open-air Middle Paleolithic site near Ramle. Dating back 120,000 years ago, the fragment represents one of the oldest pieces of evidence of the use of symbols.
The results of the study were recently published in the Quaternary International journal.
The archaeologists believe that the bone belonged to an auroch (aurochs are considered ancestors of cows and oxen). The last known aurochs lived around 500 years ago. The site of the excavation, Nesher Ramle, presents remains of intense exploitation of aurochs and other animals, including tortoises, as well as knapping activities. Numerous flint tools were uncovered alongside the etched bone.
According to Dr. Yossi Zaidner of the Institute of Archeology at Hebrew University, Paleolithic hunters would gather at the site to process the game they had caught.
Employing advanced methods of analysis, the scholars came to the conclusion that the incisions, six different engravings ranging from 38 mm. to 42 mm. in length and U-shaped, could not have been the result of accidental butchering, wear and tear or exposure to the natural elements, but, rather, were deliberately carved.
“Based on our laboratory analysis and discovery of microscopic elements, we were able to surmise that people in prehistoric times used a sharp tool fashioned from flint rock to make the engravings,” Dr. Iris Groman-Yaroslavski from the University of Haifa explained in a press release.
Moreover, scientists established that the incisions were performed by a right-handed person in a single session of work.
The archaeologists are convinced that the engravings contained a specific message.
“We reject any assumption that these grooves were some sort of inadvertent doodling. That type of artwork wouldn’t have seen this level of attention to detail,” Marion Prévost, from the Institute of Archeology at Hebrew University, said.
While a definite conclusion is impossible to reach, the experts believe that the bone was chosen in light of the status of the animal within the community, and it highlights “the spiritual connection that the hunters had with the animals they killed,” the paper explained.
“It is fair to say that we have discovered one of the oldest symbolic engraving ever found on earth – and certainly the oldest in the Levant,” Zaidner pointed out.
“This discovery has very important implications for understanding how symbolic expression developed in humans. At the same time, while it is still not possible to determine the exact meaning of these symbols we hope that continued research will unveil those key details.”