A sculpted piece of mammoth ivory may be the earliest representation of a bird in the archaeological record.
By Jonathan Amos
BBC News Online science staff
The 30,000-year-old figurine, found at Hohle Fels Cave in Germany's Ach Valley, depicts what looks to be a diving cormorant with swept-back wings.
It was found with carvings of a similar style - one shaped like a horse's head; the other is half-animal, half-human.
Experts have told the journal Nature that the figurines are among the most exquisite examples of early human art.
It is not possible to say for sure which particular hominid species made the objects.
However, Professor Nicholas Conard, from the department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology, Tubingen University, who reports their discovery, says the sculptors were probably modern humans (Homo sapiens).
"We assume so because these Upper Palaeolithic layers in which the figurines were found are associated with modern humans - and not with Neanderthals, for example," he told BBC News Online.
The figurines themselves are really quite small. The bird is the longest item, being 4.7 centimetres from the tip of the beak to the rear tail feathers.
It was found in two pieces at the cave complex - near the town of Schelklingen, 20 kilometres southwest of Ulm - last year.
"A cormorant has a little hook on the beak which this doesn't have but the general shape is certainly like a cormorant," Professor Conard said. "It's clearly a water bird of some kind."
It has legs but no indication of feet. The back of the bird shows a series of distinct lines that apparently represents feathers.
The animal head was very probably a depiction of a horse, although it could possibly be a bear, Professor Conard said. Again the detail is fine: the mouth, nostrils and eyes of the animal are depicted with deeply incised lines.
The third figure is more difficult to interpret. It stands 2.5 cm high and has undoubted human features such as shoulders, short arms and a delicately carved ear - but the face is like a lion.
Professor Conard said the objects might have had a symbolic use associated with shamanism, an archaic magico-religious belief system that sought connections between the visible and spirit worlds.
The collection joins a group of more than 20 ivory figurines now recovered at four sites in the Ach and Lone Valleys: Vogelherd, Geissenklosterle, Hohlenstein-Stadel and Hohle Fels.
They are all of a similar age - around 30,000-plus years old.
Dr Anthony Sinclair, an expert in Palaeolithic archaeology at Liverpool University, UK, said the German haul represented "the oldest body of figurative art in the world - pieces that show a coherent set of manufacturing techniques and themes for representation."
He speculated from the number of fine objects and waste materials recovered at the sites that cave complexes like Hohle Fels could have been early artists' workshops.
He said they rivalled in age and sophistication the remarkable cave paintings at Chauvet in southern France.
"They are as good as anything you will see thousands of years later - from 3-4,000 BC, that sort of period. The quality of the work is very good indeed," he told BBC News Online.
Work of chance
The Hohle Fels discovery supported the idea that artistic ability was explosive in its origin, he added.
"We have always assumed that skills would take some time to evolve - we thought the simplest charcoal drawings were the oldest and the paintings were the most recent. And yet our carbon dates now show that some of the most beautiful and elaborate paintings are among the oldest things we have."
And Professor Conard said: "These kinds of finds are proof to me that starting at that time, or no later than that time, we have ways of living that are no different to our own - certainly in terms of their complexity and symbolic communication."
Claims have been made for figurines that are much older - even hundreds of thousands of years old. The Berekhat Ram figure from Israel and the Tan-Tan figure from Morocco, for example, have been presented as the work of Homo erectus.
But many sceptical researchers believe these items are merely accidents of nature; they are objects that have been moulded into human form through chance geological processes.