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The way in which these objects, made from ivory and animal bones, has led scientists to realize that the prehistoric hunters used techniques that were far more advanced than previously understood. Source: Evgeny Artemyev / Russian Academy of Sciences

Hunters Melted and Sculpted Ivory 12,000 Years Ago

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A report out this week has evidence of ivory softening for creating tools and ornamental animals being achieved by ancient people more than 12,000 years ago. However, the Siberian scientist who made this discovery is at a total loss explaining how the ancient hunters made the playdoh-like material used to make the collection of ancient animal forms. This evidence would suggest that ancient people had craft skills that were far more complex than previously believed.

Dr. Evgeny Artemyev claims that the ivory bars were created using an advance technique that made them "fluid-like," almost like playdoh. Source: Evgeny Artemyev / Russian Academy of Sciences

Dr. Evgeny Artemyev claims that the ivory bars were created using an advance technique that made them "fluid-like," almost like playdoh. Source: Evgeny Artemyev / Russian Academy of Sciences

Ancient Science That Baffles Modern Scientists 

The ivory animals were discovered in the early 2000s by archaeologists digging in the Afontova Gora-2 archeological site, by the River Yenisey in Krasnoyarsk, often regarded to be the most beautiful city in Siberia. Twelve ivory bars were discovered that had been “shaped after being softened.” The Siberian Times reports that the fact ancient people knew how to make such tools and decorations “still puzzles modern science.”

The ivory ornaments were recently examined by Dr. Evgeny Artemyev of the Krasnoyarsk Laboratory of Archaeology and Paleogeography of Middle Siberia, Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian branch of Russian Academy of Sciences . The researcher thinks the figurines are either “Ice Age toys” made by people who populated this area of the modern-day Siberia, “or a form of primeval art.” He discovered that when you look at each one from different angles “they resemble different types of animals” using technologies that the international scientific community is “not aware of yet,” the archaeologist said.

The animal-like figures discovered in Siberia were made from spongy parts of woolly mammoth and bear bones. (Evgeny Artemyev / Russian Academy of Sciences)

The animal-like figures discovered in Siberia were made from spongy parts of woolly mammoth and bear bones. (Evgeny Artemyev / Russian Academy of Sciences )

Reshaping “Fluid Like” Ivory

Dr. Artemyev says two of the animal-like figurines that were made from spongy parts of woolly mammoth and bear bones. What’s more, when you look at one of them on its side it resembles a sleeping human. Returning to the playdoh reference, this came about because some of the phallic-shaped ivory bars discovered at the same site were created with a technique which made them “almost fluid-like.”

Traces of stone implements marked on “the flows” of the malleable substance before it stiffened indicated that before being shaped the creatures’ tusks were “softened significantly, the consistency was viscous,” said Dr. Artemyev. While scientists are not yet sure how ancient people managed to achieve that semi-molten state, Dr. Artemyev said one particular mammoth tusk “was softened to the extent that it resembled modern-day playdoh.”

Dr. Artemyev said that archaeologists have never come across anything like this at contemporary Palaeolithic sites and that traditional views of ancient people being more primitive than ourselves needs updating. The world seldom gets to see such artifacts because scientific teams “rarely publish about items that can’t be properly explained,” the archaeologist claimed. These elongated ivory bars could be blanks prepared to make tools, or future toys, but the scientists can’t yet fathom how these shapes were made. But they now accept that the ancient people had much greater skills than they have ever imagined.

The artifacts, including the ivory bars, were discovered in the early 2000s by archaeologists digging in the Afontova Gora-2 archeological site, in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. (Evgeny Artemyev / Russian Academy of Sciences)

The artifacts, including the ivory bars, were discovered in the early 2000s by archaeologists digging in the Afontova Gora-2 archeological site, in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. (Evgeny Artemyev / Russian Academy of Sciences )

How to Make Soft Ivory?

Researching into the mystery of how ancient hunters might have softened ivory, some answers are to be found in a Scientific American article titled How to Make Soft Ivory . With time ivory becomes friable (easily crumbled), and it can be softened and made translucent by boiling it in gelatin and laying it in a bath of phosphoric acid, before drying it in pure linen. When the treated ivory has hardened it can then be re-softened with a bath of warm water and milk. Herein lies the mystery.

We know the ancients had access to water, milk and gelatin, from animal hoofs, but where on Earth did 12,000-year-old hunters in Siberia get phosphoric acid? This essential ingredient is available from foods that are high in protein like meats, beans, eggs, chicken, and fish, which are all high in phosphorus, but how the hunters gathered and refined the acid to make ivory malleable is they key to understanding this whole situation. Hence the conclusion “these ancient people had much greater skills than they have imagined.”

Top image: The way in which these objects, made from ivory and animal bones, has led scientists to realize that the prehistoric hunters used techniques that were far more advanced than previously understood. Source: Evgeny Artemyev / Russian Academy of Sciences

By Ashley Cowie

Comments

Warwick Lewis's picture

The picture of "animal like figures" is not very convincing.
This looks like a case of pareidolia to me.
Not only that but they aren't even made from the ivory playdoh.
What was actually made from this mysterious substance ??..."bars" of ivory.
Used to make moulded objects ??...why not just mould it to the final shape ??
What point in making "bars" as an intermediatary ??
Not convinced there are to many holes in this article.

WarwickLewis

It seems to me that I remember an old science experiment on this. Soaking the bone in vinegar allowed you to tie chicken leg bones in a knot. It would be easier to accidently invent vinegar than phosphoric acid.

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