Early evidence for symbolic behavior in the Levantine Middle Paleolithic: A 120 ka old engraved aurochs bone shaft from the open-air site of Nesher Ramla, Israel

Marion Prévost*, Iris Groman-Yaroslavski, Kathryn M. Crater Gershtein, José Miguel Tejero, Yossi Zaidner*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


During the Middle Paleolithic in Eurasia, the production of deliberate, abstract engraving on bone or stone materials is a rare phenomenon. It is now widely accepted that both anatomically modern humans and hominins that predate them have produced deliberate engravings associated with symbolic behavior. Within the Levantine Middle Paleolithic context, only five examples of intentional engravings are known thus far. In this paper, we present an aurochs bone fragment that bears six deep, sub-parallel incisions, recovered at the open-air Middle Paleolithic site of Nesher Ramla in Israel. The item, found in an anthropogenic accumulation of artifacts in Unit III of the site, was dated to early Marine Isotope Stage 5 (ca. 120 ka). Unit III is a stratigraphically well-defined layer that is characterized by intense on-site knapping activities with predominance of the centripetal Levallois reduction method and by intense exploitation of aurochs and tortoises. This paper presents a multidisciplinary study of the bone and the incisions, including zooarchaeological, macro- and microscopic analyses, Scanning Electron Microscope analysis and experimental replications. The macroscopic and microscopic attributes of the incisions, and the comparisons with experimental material exclude a taphonomic or utilitarian origin of the incisions. The study indicates that the engravings were most likely produced by a right-handed individual in a single working session. The morphology and characteristics of the incisions, especially the presence of longitudinal polish and striations in one of the incisions, suggest that they were made by a flint artifact, likely retouched. The engraved bone from Unit III at Nesher Ramla is one of the oldest deliberate abstract manifestations produced by Middle Paleolithic and Middle Stone Age hominins and the oldest known so far in the Levant. As such, it has major implications for our understanding of the emergence and early stages of the development of human symbolic behavior.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)80-93
Number of pages14
JournalQuaternary International
StatePublished - 30 Jun 2022

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  • Aurochs bone
  • Engraved object
  • Middle paleolithic
  • Non-utilitarian object
  • Symbolic mediated behavior


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