A tiny ivory figurine of a buxom female proves that human beings were carving statuettes 35,000 years ago - thousands of years earlier than hitherto believed, according to German researchers.
The six-centimetre-tall figurine was carved from a mammoth tusk and was found in a cave in south-western Germany, where hundreds of similar objects have been found, albeit from much later periods.
The carving depicts a woman with enormous breasts as well as exaggerated genitals, a pregnant belly and plump thighs. Experts say its blatant sexual depiction is typical of similar "Venus" figurines which apparently were used as fertility fetish objects to ensure safe delivery of babies under the harsh conditions of the Ice Age.
But unlike other Venus figurines which are 25,000 to 30,000 years old, radiocarbon dating showed that this figurine is at least 35,000 years old, predating later similar finds by 5,000 years or more.
The figurine was recovered last year from the Hohle Fels cave near Schelklingen in south-west Germany. It was found in a heap of stone, bone and ivory tools typical of the first Homo sapien populations to settle in Europe.
Other Venus figurines have been found, but they belonged to a much later culture called the Gravettian.
Nicholas Conard from Tubingen University in Germany, who described the find in the journal Nature, wrote: "The new figurine from the Hohle Fels radically changes our view of the origins of Palaeolithic art."
The birth of art is still shrouded in mystery. No one knows for sure when humans first started creating artworks, but geometric designs dating back 75,000 years or more have been found on pieces of red iron oxide rock from Africa.
Artistic ability in early humans is considered evidence of abstract thought, which may in turn have contributed to the development of language.
Although much older engravings have been found in Africa, shaped figurines are only known in Europe.
The Black Forest region of south-west Germany, in which the Hohle Fels cave is situated, is only a short distance from the Danube valley - the route early humans probably took as they moved out of Africa into central and western Europe.
Other cave sites from the region have produced small ivory carvings depicting mammoths, bison, lions, horses and birds, and two half-animal, half-human figures.
Carved ivory beads and pendants, as well as perforated bird-wing and mammoth ivory flutes - the world's oldest musical instruments - have also been recovered from the caves.
But the new figurine is the first from this period, known as the Aurignacian, to depict a purely human form