Could 10,000-year-old engraved antler be the world's oldest gift?

The reindeer antler dates from the early Mesolithic, which began 10,000 years ago.Osipowicz et al 2017

An artefact known as a bâton percé, discovered at Gołębiewo in Central Poland, is thought to have been a gift from the people of South Lapland to a distant society living hundreds of miles to the south.

The antler was discovered in the spring of 2013, in the village of Gołębiewo, during excavation of a fish pond. It is just over 30cm long and about 2-3cm in diameter. Along the curved line of the antler, a central groove has been carved. Protruding from it on one side is a series of 10 triangles filled with parallel lines.

DNA analysis established that it was a reindeer antler, while radiocarbon dating and analysis of the style of the artistry dates the antler to the early Mesolithic, which began about 10,000 years ago.

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The fact that it was made from reindeer antler was the first clue that the artefact didn't originate in Poland. At this time, reindeer only lived in northern Scandinavia and north-west Russia. A reindeer antler hasn't been found dating from this era in Eastern Europe before.

Another clue came later, when the site at Gołębiewo was excavated more comprehensively. No other artefacts or evidence of a settlement was found. So why was an isolated reindeer antler found so far south from where reindeer actually lived?

Oxygen, carbon and nitrogen isotope dating revealed that North Karelia and South Lapland were the most likely origins for the antler. The careful carved pattern is evidence that the artefact had significant social value.

It could have been retrieved from Lapland as part of a rite of passage, or it could have been a part of social contact between the groups from the far north and central Europe. There has been no direct evidence of the two cultures meeting before. However many cultural similarities, such as flint-making techniques, make such contact plausible.

"The bâton percé from Gołębiewo is a significant item representing the art of the Early-Holocene hunter-gatherers," write the authors of a study on the artefact in the journal PLOS ONE.

"More importantly, though, being currently the youngest reindeer bone artefact in the European Plains and southern Scandinavia, it likely constitutes evidence for interregional contact in the European Mesolithic, characterised by a nature and range that go beyond the schemes validated by current knowledge."

The antler can now be found in the Fr. Dr Władysław Łęga Museum in Grudziądz.

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Reindeer were only found in the far north of Europe in the Stone Age. Timo Newton-Syms
Reindeer antlers were prized artefacts, shaped and carved by hand. Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

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