Three small ivory carvings excavated from an archaeological site in southern Germany are the oldest examples of figurative art in the world, dating to about the same time as the oldest cave paintings.
The sculptures, representing a bird, a horse's head and a half-man, half-lion, were delicately carved in fragments of mammoth tusk between 30,000 and 33,000 years ago by the first anatomically modern humans to colonise Europe.
Archaeologists led by Nicholas Conard, professor of early prehistory at Tubingen University, discovered the figurines at Hohle Fels Cave near the Swabian town of Blaubeuren in the south-west of Germany. Professor Conard describes them in detail in the journal Nature.
Each figurine is about 2cm long and has been carved with a delicacy and skill that has astonished specialists who had not expected such artistic expertise as such an early stage.
Professor Conard said the carvings suggest that the earliest members of the Homo sapiens species to colonise Europe practised a form of religion known as shamanism, using animals to depict the transition between the real and the spirit world.
The bird figurine shows a diving waterfowl and is significant because water birds were viewed by shamanists as able to transcend the real world and the spirit world. "It may be the oldest representation of a bird anywhere," said Professor Conard.
The half-lion, half-man depicts the transformation of a human being into an animal spirit which is central to shamanism. It is the second "lowenmensch" or "lionman" to be discovered in Germany..
"Finding a second lowenmensch is so unlikely unless there were hundreds of similar figurines made at the time," Professor Conard said.
The scientists also found fragments of ivory, bone and stones that they believe are waste cuttings from probably the oldest known artists' workshop. More than 20 ivory carvings that have been excavated from this region of Germany, suggesting that it was a central location for the development of prehistoric culture.
Anthony Sinclair, an archaeologist at Liverpool University, said the finds exploded the myth that it took many thousands of years for human art to evolve. "The archaeological evidence is now forcing us to come up with new timescales for cultural change and innovation. This is a challenge that makes the smallest finds of archaeology as important as the largest."
The three figurines will go on public display for the first time tomorrow at a new museum in Blaubeuren.