The bird statuette, photographed here from different angles, is made from burnt bone. The style suggests it is an original artistic tradition, separate from analogous western or Siberian art
A tiny figurine of a bird, carved from burnt bone and no bigger than a £1 coin, is the earliest Chinese artwork ever discovered, according to an international team of archaeologists.

The carving, less than 2cm in length, has been dated to the palaeolithic period, between 13,800 and 13,000 years ago, which pushes back the earliest known date of east Asian animal sculpture by more than eight millennia.

It was found at Lingjing in the Henan province of China, and takes the form of a bird standing on a pedestal, which researchers say indicates it may belong to an entirely original artistic tradition, unconnected to other ancient styles found in Europe or Siberia.

"When you look at it under the microscope, you really see it was [made by] an artist," says Francesco d'Errico, a director of research for France's National Centre for Scientific Research, who is based at the University of Bordeaux.

That is clear not only from the minute detail of the carving, he says, but the form chosen by its creator.

"If you look at the tail, you see that it's too big, and the reason for that is that [otherwise] it wouldn't stand on the pedestal but would fall forward on its head."

Instead, the figurine is beautifully balanced and stands upright if set on a flat surface. "It's very small, but in fact it's quite refined."

Similarly, the method used to blacken the bone from which the bird is carved, though not yet fully understood, required great technical skill, d'Errico says.

The earliest known carved figures date from a much earlier period, up to 40,000 years ago, and consist of animal and human figures sculpted from mammoth ivory, which were discovered in the Swabian Jura mountain range in what is now Germany.

Until now, however, the earliest animal sculpture found in east Asia dated from around 3,000 BC.

The Lingjing bird is much smaller than the Swabian Jura figures, and the representation of the bird standing on a pedestal is unique in palaeolithic art.

Though the people who made the sculpture were modern humans who manufactured and used complex hunter-gatherer technologies, using refined tools, needles and beads, some other sophisticated cultures from the same period show no evidence of creating sculptures, says d'Errico.

The figure is exceptionally well-preserved, so much so that the researchers have been able to identify the methods used to carve each of its 68 facets - including incised marks intended to represent its eye and bill.

Though its precise meaning and function to its hunter-gatherer owners can never be fully known, its form gives some clues, according to d'Errico. Almost certainly too small to be a personal ornament or intended to be on display, he says, "it looks like an object that you would carry with you in a bag, perhaps with other objects.

"Perhaps a shaman could use all of these objects [by throwing them down] to predict the future. So there were perhaps other little animals carved by the same person, or bones or other items, that were carried around."

The findings are published in the journal Plos One.