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This delicate 13,500-year-old bird is the oldest known Chinese sculpture

The Paleolithic carving is made from burned mammal bone.

This tiny bird statuette is the oldest known example of 3D Chinese art.
Francesco d'Errico and Luc Doyon

A tiny piece of burned bone carved into the shape of a bird is extending the tradition of Chinese sculptural art back by thousands of years. 

An international team of researchers led by archaeologist Zhanyang Li of Shandong University in China investigated a statuette recovered from the Lingjing paleolithic site in China's Henan province. The researchers say it depicts a standing bird and shows clear signs of having been worked by human hands. 

The team dated the figurine to around 13,500 years ago and published a detailed study of the sculpture in the journal PLOS ONE this week. 

"This discovery identifies an original artistic tradition and pushes back by more than 8,500 years the representation of birds in Chinese art," the authors said in a release on Wednesday.

The figurine was so well preserved the team was able to reconstruct how it was made. The bone material comes from a mammal and was sculpted using scrapes, gouges, abrasion and incisions. It shows signs of special care being taken to represent the eye and beak. 

"The stylistic and technical particularities of the figurine -- it is the only known Paleolithic sculpture representing an animal standing on a pedestal -- point to an original artistic tradition, different from those known in Western Europe and Siberia," the CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research) said in a release on Wednesday.

According to the CNRS, the next oldest-known Chinese sculptures are 6,000-year-old stone animal figurines found near Beijing. 

The burned-bone bird may be little, but is having an out-sized impact on scientists' understanding of art history in China.