Israeli archeologists say it is a 300,000-year-old carving representing a woman, which would make it the first piece of art in history and overturn long- held assumptions about when man first became capable of artistic creation.
Abstract thought is previously believed to have begun only with Neanderthal men 150,000 years ago, who, for example, buried their dead. The earliest figurines found until now have been dated at 40,000 BC. The earliest cave paintings, found in Europe, were made about 35,000 years ago.
The figure - with a head, two arms and breasts, marked with deep striations - was unearthed by Naama Goren, a professor of archeology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, at Bir Khet Ram on the Golan Heights. The site, under the lip of an old volcano, is a hominid camp, which has yielded a wealth of prehistoric finds.
Fabio Frachtenberg, the curator of the Israel Museum, says it was uncovered between two layers of basalt, which are reliably dated using a technique called potassium argon testing. The lower layer was about 800,000 years old and the upper about 230,000 years old. Using comparisons with flint and basalt tools found on the site, archeologists fixed the age at 300,000 years old.
The Israeli experts say the dating could not be mistaken as the site is only a 'one layer site' - in other words, there are no remnants of other periods of human habitation here.
The engravings, which mark out the shape of the woman, are covered with a 'patina' substance produced during the weathering process, which only accumulates over thousands of years.
Paul Bahn, a British archeologist who has written extensively on stone age art, said some pre-historians are sceptical that it was deliberately shaped by early humans.
'The overall shape appears to be naturally formed. The question is whether this shape was enhanced in any way by early humans. If the grooves are man-made, it is an incredibly important object,' he said.
The problem is that the stone is relatively 'friable' with no clear sharp lines that can be examined under a microscope for evidence of being etched by human tools, he said.
The oldest knownstone tools were found in Ethiopia and date to about three or four million years ago. The date of the figurine is probably correct, he said, but this says little about whether it is the work of human imagination.
Nevertheless, if it proves to be entirely natural it may still be important. It was found on the site of an early settlement and so could have been collected and admired by early humans because they recognised its human-like shape.