The Tan-Tan object is simply a two-inch-long piece of quartzite rock, which was found some fifty feet below ground on north bank of the Draa river near the Moroccan town of Tan-Tan. It was discovered in 1999, a few inches away from some stone handaxes in ground layers dating to the Middle Acheulian period, that is between 500,000 and 300,000 years ago; and hence the dating of the object to circa 400,000 BC.
The Tan-Tan object was a stone, roughly shaped like a human figure, in that there were eight grooves cut into the stone, that suggested a crude representation of a head, neck, torso, arms, and legs. Its discover, a Lutz Fiedler, the state archaeologist of Hesse in Germany, wasn't actually all that impressed (he was far more excited by the stone tools he had found) but decided to hand the object over to Robert Bednarik, (president of the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations based in Melbourne, Australia) for further analysis.
When he first handled the object Robert Bednarik was of the opinion that he was simply dealing with a natural object until he examined the stone under a microscope. He then became of the opionion;
- that five of the grooves looked as if had been deliberately made
- that since the stone's surface revealed flakes of greasy substance containing iron oxide and manganese oxide, that it had once been painted.
Robert Bednarik therefore came to the conclusion that he was dealing with a crude human figurine, and the world's oldest work of art ever found.
Now Robert Bednarik accepts that the overall shape of the Tan-Tan object was produced by natural processes and that some of the grooves were already present thereby giving it a vaguely human form, but argues that the stone was then modified by creating additional grooves made by repeatedly battering it with some crude stone tool (such as those found nearby) and then painted.
This claim is, needless to say, somewhat controversial, as current scientific orthodoxy, otherwise known as the standard Eve hypothesis, decrees that it was Homo sapiens that came Out of Africa some 120,000 years ago, that was the first hominid species to display such intellectual capabilities. Therefore the hominid species that were around during the Acheulian period some 400,000 years ago, namely Homo heidelbergensis and Homo erectus, were simply not capable of the necessary abstract and symbolic thought needed to create art.
Robert Bednarik is quite well aware of this and argues that "The only way to maintain the Eve hypothesis is by drawing a thick line between moderns and totally different archaic people. That's not what we see".
However, not everyone is convinced and a certain Professor Stanley Ambrose of the University of Illinois, for example, disagrees and sees no evidence for tool marks concluding that the object is simply the product of "fortuitous natural weathering".
Mr Bednarik is sticking by his guns and believes that the oxide flakes he discovered are not naturally corroded iron deposits, and were not present on any of the other objects found at Tan-Tan and are therefore evidence of paint and insists that we are dealing with an authentic artifact, the world's oldest work of art.
You can currently see a picture of the Tan-Tan object at the BBC source noted below.
Paul Rincon 'Oldest sculpture' found in Morocco (23 May, 2003) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3047383.stm
Kathy A. Svitil Leonardo of the Pleistocene(DISCOVER Vol. 24 No. 10 October 2003) from the Google cache of www.discover.com/oct_03/breakleo.html