Russia’s Shigir Idol, The World’s Oldest Wooden Statue, Is Believed To Be Twice As Old As Egyptian Pyramids

The statue was originally found toward the end of the 19th century in Yekaterinburg, Russia, and is now believed to be about 11,600-years-old.

Russia's Shigir Idol, The World's Oldest Wooden Statue, Is Believed To Be Twice As Old As Egyptian Pyramids
Tolmachev V.Y. / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain/Cropped and Resized

The statue was originally found toward the end of the 19th century in Yekaterinburg, Russia, and is now believed to be about 11,600-years-old.

The Shigir Idol, a statue that was first discovered in Russia more than a century ago and thought to be the world’s oldest wooden statue, might be even older than once thought, according to a multinational team of researchers who used new techniques to come up with a more accurate estimate of the piece’s age.

As recalled by Science magazine, the Shigir Idol was first found by gold prospectors in 1894 near Yekaterinburg, Russia. Measuring about 16-feet-tall, the statue stood out for the images of human faces and hands, among other unusual visual features. For the next 120 years or so, the statue was kept in a Yekaterinburg museum, with most estimates suggesting that it was close to 10,000-years-old at the oldest. However, a new study suggests that it might be even older than that, and might have been crafted from a single larch tree log about 11,600 years ago.

In a study published this week in the journal Antiquity, a team of researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences and the University of Gottingen in Germany documented how they used modern dating techniques, in hopes of getting a better idea of how old the Shigir Idol really is. Interestingly, radiocarbon dating done on the statue in the 1990s suggested that it was about 9,800-years-old. While that could have made it a candidate for the world’s oldest wooden statue as early as then, many experts cast doubt on the research, thinking that it was too complex a statue to be crafted by ancient hunter-gatherers from the era.

Although the results had yet to be peer reviewed at the time, the researchers behind the new study announced in 2015 that based on samples from the Shigir Idol taken a year prior, the statue’s age might have been closer to 11,600-years-old, putting its origins close to the time when our planet’s last Ice Age had ended. Separately, an antler carving discovered close to where the idol was originally found was dated back to a similar era, further lending credence to the statue’s new estimated age. If the age is accurate, that makes the the world’s oldest known wooden statue twice as old as the Egyptian pyramids, according to Phys.org.

These findings were recorded when the study was finally published on Tuesday, and they suggest that post-Ice Age hunter-gatherers might have been capable of more intricate creations than they were once given credit for. It’s still not clear what the symbols on the Shigir Idol represent, but Science magazine noted that the artwork resembles that from Gobekli Tepe, an archaeological site located about 1,550 miles away, in present-day Turkey. Study co-author Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the University of Gottingen, also believes that the symbols are similar to those on totem poles found in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

“We have to conclude hunter-gatherers had complex ritual and expression of ideas. Ritual doesn’t start with farming, but with hunter-gatherers,” said Terberger.

The Shigir Idol is not the only ancient artifact found in the Yekaterinburg site, as suggested by more recent discoveries made by Russian Academy of Sciences archaeologist and study co-author Mikhail Zhilin. According to Science, Zhilin and his colleagues found elk antlers with animal faces carved onto them, tiny daggers and bone points, and various woodworking tools, further suggesting that hunter-gatherers who once lived in the area “knew how to work wood perfectly.”