Three small ivory figurines discovered in a German cave provide further proof of the artistic prowess of early Europeans, according to a new report. The carvings, described today in the journal Nature, suggest that modern humans were quick to develop their aesthetic skills.

Nicolas J. Conard of the University of Tubingen in Germany discovered the sculptures, all of which were less than five centimeters long, in Hohle Fels cave in southwestern Germany. The carvings depict a bird, an animal resembling a horse (above) and a creature that appears to be part human with a feline head; they date to between 30,000 and 33,000 years ago. "Instead of a gradual evolution of skills," comments Anthony Sinclair of University of Liverpool, "the first modern humans in Europe were in fact astonishingly precocious artists."

The new find, together with about 20 previously recovered figurines from four sites in the Ach and Lone Valleys, comprise "the oldest body of figurative art in the world," according to Sinclair. The meaning of the small statues, however, remains unclear. Some scientists have suggested that representations of mixtures of humans and animals could be evidence for shamanism. On the other hand, the carvings may instead be an outlet for detailed observation of the natural world. Conard notes that the figurines highlighted "a broad range of animals that the occupants of the region presumably admired."