Homo erectus was making engravings 500,000 years ago

Long before any specimens of Homo sapiens were even gleams in the eyes of their hominin ancestors, Homo erectus peoples on Java (how and when did they get there?) were using shells as tools and were making engravings on the shells themselves. A new paper in Nature reports on studies of hundreds of fossil shells from the Homo erectus site Trinil, on the Indonesian island of Java. The shells are part of the Dubois Collection held at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. They have been dated to about 500,000 years ago.

Of course if all Homo Sapiens came Out of Africa (or Africarabia) around 100,000 years ago, then these Homo erectus on Java must have gone extinct without leaving any survivors (unless some of their genes still live on through later admixtures).

Joordens J.C.A., et al. Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool product i on and engraving, Nature 10.1038/nature19362.

The 'Pseudodon shell' fossil with the engraving made by Homo erectus op Trinil. (Photo: Wim Lustenhouwer, Vrije Universiteit)

The ‘Pseudodon shell’ fossil with the engraving made by Homo erectus on Trinil. (Photo: Wim Lustenhouwer, Vrije Universiteit)

From the Leiden University Press Release:

Oldest ever engraving discovered on 500,000-year-old shell

Homo erectus on Java was already using shells of freshwater mussels as tools half a million years ago, and as a ‘canvas’ for an engraving. An international team of researchers, led by Leiden archaeologist José Joordens, published this discovery on 3 December in Nature. The discovery provides new insights into the evolution of human behaviour.

‘Until this discovery, it was assumed that comparable engravings were only made by modern humans – Homo sapiens – in Africa, starting about 100,000 years ago,’ says lead author José Joordens, researcher at the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University.

A team of 21 researchers studied hundreds of fossil shells from the Homo erectus site Trinil, on the Indonesian island of Java. The shells are part of the Dubois Collection held at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. The shells were excavated at the end of the 19th century by the Dutch physician and researcher Eugène Dubois, the discoverer ofPithecanthropus erectus – now known as Homo erectus.

The discovery of an engraved geometrical pattern on one of the shells came as a total surprise. The zigzag pattern, that can only be seen with oblique lighting, clearly pre-dates the weathering processes on the shell arising from fossilisation. The study has excluded the possibility that the pattern could have been caused by animals or by natural weathering processes and shows that the zigzag pattern is the work of Homo erectus.

By applying two dating methods, researchers at the VU University Amsterdam and Wageningen University have determined that the shell with the engraving is minimally 430,000 and maximally 540,000 years old.This means that the engraving is at least four times older than the previously oldest known engravings, found in Africa. …..

…… This research has shown that these early human-like people were very clever about how they opened these large freshwater mussels; they drilled a hole through the shell using a sharp object, possibly a shark’s tooth, exactly at the point where the muscle is attached that keeps the shell closed. ‘The precision with which these early humans worked indicates great dexterity and detailed knowledge of mollusc anatomy,’ says Frank Wesselingh, a researcher and expert on fossil shells at Naturalis. The molluscs were eaten and the empty shells were used to manufacture tools, such as knives.

A. Shell tool, made by Homo erectus. B. Detail of the sharp edge used for cutting or etching. (Photo: Francesco d'Errico, Bordeaux University)

A. Shell tool, made by Homo erectus. B. Detail of the sharp edge used for cutting or etching. (Photo: Francesco d’Errico, Bordeaux University)

 

 

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