Decolonizing Prehistory with World’s Oldest Wooden Sculpture


“The idol was carved during an era of great climate change, when early forests were spreading across a warmer late glacial to postglacial Eurasia,” Dr. Terberger said. “The landscape changed, and the art — figurative designs and naturalistic animals painted in caves and carved in rock — did, too, perhaps as a way to help people come to grips with the challenging environments they encountered.”

Written with an eye toward disentangling Western science from colonialism, Dr. Terberger’s latest paper challenges the ethnocentric notion that pretty much everything, including symbolic expression and philosophical perceptions of the world, came to Europe by way of the sedentary farming communities in the Fertile Crescent 8,000 years ago.

“Ever since the Victorian era, Western science has been a story of superior European knowledge and the cognitively and behaviorally inferior ‘other,’” Dr. Terberger said. “The hunter-gatherers are regarded as inferior to early agrarian communities emerging at that time in the Levant. At the same time, the archaeological evidence from the Urals and Siberia was underestimated and neglected. For many of my colleagues, the Urals were a very terra incognita.”

To João Zilhão, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Barcelona who was not involved in the study, the take-home message of the research is that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

“It’s similar to the ‘Neanderthals did not make art’ fable, which was entirely based on absence of evidence,” he said. “And then the evidence was found and the fable exposed for what it was. Likewise, the overwhelming scientific consensus used to hold that modern humans were superior in key ways, including their ability to innovate, communicate and adapt to different environments.

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