The world’s oldest narrative scene, depicting humans and animals in a two-panel carving, has been discovered by archaeologists in Turkey.
The research, published in the peer-reviewed journal Antiquity, describes an 11,000-year-old complex at Sayburç, with several residential buildings and a large communal structure. The engraving was found on benches that line the walls in a communal area.
Both panels portray a person facing dangerous animals—the flat relief on the left shows a squatting male figure holding a rattle or a snake against a bull, while the right shows a male figure in high relief holding its phallus as leopards approach from both sides.
This human figure features a round face, large ears, and bulging eyes, and is wearing a triangular-shaped neckband. The horns of the bull and the teeth of the leopards are especially emphasized, which serves to heighten the danger in each scene.
“These figures, engraved together to depict a narrative, are the first known examples of such a holistic scene,” explained Eylem Özdoğan, author of the paper and archaeologist at Istanbul University, in a statement. “This was a picture of the stories that formed the ideology of the people of that period.”
Dating to the 9th millennium BCE, the site in southeastern Turkey is located under a present-day village in Şanlıurfa Province. Excavations beginning in 2021 revealed the area was inhabited by a Neolithic population that was transitioning from mobile hunter-gatherers to a more sedentary, farming lifestyle with long-term settlements throughout the region.
“The process of Neolithisation brought with it substantial changes to the cycle of daily life, subsistence strategies and technology, but perhaps most significantly to social relations, culminating in a redefinition of humanity’s place in the world,” the paper explains. “The development of collective activities and rituals, and the construction of communal buildings with strong symbolic elements, was instrumental in advancing this new way of life.”
While older examples of narrative art have been identified—among them, the nearly 17,000-year-old cave paintings at Lascaux and a roughly 44,000-year-old cave panel on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi—these are the first known to show a progressing narrative structure.
The 36-foot communal structure at Sayburç was carved into the limestone bedrock—it is thought to have been a place for special communal gatherings, with engraved benches lining the walls. The figures depicted in the narrative scene were likely important among this early farming community, and may have been historical or mythical characters related to the region’s traditions.
As humans became accustomed to more sedentary lifestyles, carvings and other visual representations of previous oral storytelling and traditions may have become a new connection point, a method for remembrance in a changing world. Events or stories may have been told through the medium of carving. The Sayburç reliefs, Özdoğan offers, are broadly speaking, “the reflection of a collective memory that kept the values of its community alive.”
Further excavations will likely reveal more ancient scenes, as the communal building has been only partially uncovered, though, according to Özdoğan, “Sayburç has very clear evidence [and] has the potential to tell us a lot about the Neolithic society that we do not know yet.”