Oldest engraving rewrites view of human history

December 3, 2014 by Richard Ingham
Detail of the engraving on fossil Pseudodon shell (DUB1006-fL) from Trinil Credit: Wim Lustenhouwer, VU University Amsterdam

Anthropologists on Wednesday said they had found the earliest engraving in human history on a fossilised mollusc shell some 500,000 years old, unearthed in colonial-era Indonesia.

The zigzag scratching, together with evidence that these shells were used as a tool, should prompt a rethink about the mysterious early human called Homo erectus, they said.

The discovery comes through new scrutiny of 166 freshwater mussel shells found at Trinil, on the banks of the Bengawan Solo river in East Java, where one of the most sensational finds in fossil-hunting was made.

It was here in 1891 that an adventurous Dutch palaeontologist, Eugene Dubois, found "Java Man."

With a couple of army sergeants and convict labour to do the digging, Dubois excavated part of a heavy-browed skull, a tooth and a thigh bone.

He interpreted these as being the remains of a gibbon-like hominid that was the long-sought "missing link" between apes and humans.

Dubois' claim excited fierce controversy, as well as jokey images of our distant ancestors as slack-jawed primates with dragging knuckles.

Palaeontologists eventually categorised the find as a Homo erectus, or "upright human"—a hominid that according to sketchy and hugely debated fossil evidence lived from around 1.9 million years ago to about 150,000 years ago.

Reporting in the science journal Nature, a team led by Josephine Joordens at Leiden University in the Netherlands, harnessed 21st-century technology to take a new look at the Trinil shells, now housed in a local collection.

Carbon dating of sediment found in the shells put their age at between 430,000 and 540,000 years ago.

A third of the shells were also found to have a curious hole at the base of one of the bivalve's muscles.

Sharp-toothed animals such as otters, rats or monkeys may have bitten into it to get at the flesh—but a likelier source, said the experts, is H. erectus, which tucked into the shells for food.

The fossil Pseudodon shell (DUB1006-fL) with the engraving made by Homo erectus at Trinil Credit: Wim Lustenhouwer, VU University Amsterdam

The team carried out experiments on living mussels of the same mollusc family, Pseudodon, piercing the shell at the same location with a pointed object.

As soon as the shell was broached, the muscle was damaged by the tool tip and the mollusc could be easily opened without breakage.

Dextrous erectus?

The scientists then deployed a scanning electron microscope to get a closer look at the shells.

One of them was found to have a polished and smooth edge, suggesting it may have been used as a tool to cut or scrape.

Another had a zigzag set of grooves incised into it, by a sharp implement such as a shark's tooth.

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Dr Stephen Munro explains how 400 000 year old patterns scratched on a mussel shell have rewritten human history. Credit: ANU

The marks are at least 300,000 years older than the earliest previously known, indisputable engravings.

"The simple zigzag on the shell is the earliest engraving known thus far in the history of humankind," Joordens' colleague, Wil Roebroeks, told AFP in an email.

"But: we have no clue why somebody made it half a million years ago, and we explicitly refrain from speculating on it" in terms of art or symbolism, he said.

Inside of the fossil Pseudodon shell (DUB7923-bL) showing that the hole made by Homo erectus is exactly at the spot where the adductor muscle is attached to the shell Credit: Henk Caspers, Naturalis, Leiden, The Netherlands

Francesco d'Errico of Bordeaux University in southwestern France said the engraving was "the oldest known graphic expression."

"The behaviour is deliberate. The individual had the desire to make a zigzag pattern in a single go," he said.

But d'Errico cautioned, "We don't know why he did it. It may have been a mark of ownership, a personal code, a gift."

Geometric marks are considered to be a sign of cognitive behaviour and neuromotor skills that—until now—have been overwhelmingly attributed to modern man, Homo sapiens.

Put together, the new evidence delivers a blow to the stereotype of H. erectus as lumbering, heavy-handed and stupid.

He was smart enough to feed himself efficiently from mussels, dextrous enough to use slim, smooth shells as tools and brainy enough to engrave an abstract pattern on one of them.

A "richer" image of this enigmatic hominid results, Roebroeks said.

"We knew that H. erectus made nice handaxes etcetera," he said.

"Now we have this evidence for sophisticated opening of and a small zigzag, it might create a more subtle picture."

Explore further: Neanderthals ate shellfish 150,000 years ago: study

More information: Nature, dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature13962

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21 comments

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foolspoo
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 03, 2014
Comon Dick ingham.

from science:

"Although the team dated four of the shells in the collection, including the engraved shell, to about 500,000 years ago using two different techniques on sediments of sand and clay found inside them, Ciochon says that those sediments could have entered the shells during the earlier flood event that created the site, and that H. sapiens still could have come along much later and performed the etching."

wonderful find though it does not command any adjustments to our timescales. this sample is far too limited in its facts
adave
3.5 / 5 (6) Dec 03, 2014
For anyone checkering stocks to bring two lines to a point and not create an x requires skill. The etching shows a sense of parallel lines and measurement. The tool was not a saw but a scribe drawn along a straight edge since the surface was not flat. The technique was done with care so that the lines were made with constant pressure and the same abrasion. Emotion made this etching important enough to be kept long enough to show wear on the top surfaces. This was not made and discarded.
marc verhaegen
3.3 / 5 (3) Dec 03, 2014
:-) Joordens cs think that Homo erectus used a shark tooth to open the (probably freshwater) shells: it was presumably a large river, occasionally affected by tidal marine waters, and close to the sea. In any case, it's another argument that H.erectus cs did not run over open plains or savannas (as is still believed by many paleo-anthropologists), but simply followed the African & Eurasian coasts & rivers when they dispersed intercontinentally during the Pleistocene (Ice Ages, after c 2.6 mill.yrs ago), see our papers at www.researchgate....erhaegen & independent.academia.edu/marcverhaegen
Koolokamba
3 / 5 (2) Dec 03, 2014
Interesting article about Homo erectus: http://www.macroe...tus.html
boro
5 / 5 (4) Dec 03, 2014
Argon dating, not carbon. Tsk tsk.
flashgordon
3.5 / 5 (4) Dec 03, 2014
Archaeology was revolutionized recently by finds of zigzag patterns on a shaped rock, dating to a hundred thousand years in South Africa. Could the same intellectual tradition have been passed down through the ages from Homo Erectus to Homo Sapiens?

https://encrypted...Krgl75XA picture of the rock
boro
1 / 5 (5) Dec 03, 2014
I'm guessing entoptics rather than cultural transmission, flashgordon. The eye has EXOR gates at the back of the retina which produce a line drawing which is then sent to the visual cortex, in the same way that image processing software does it. The brain is highly attuned to straight lines. Zigzags are a common optical effect, I get them myself. Migraine sufferers may experience this sort of visual interference.
flashgordon
3 / 5 (2) Dec 03, 2014
That's an interesting possibility boro!

Jacob Bronowski mentions this tendency to see lines in his "Origins of Knowledge and Imagination"(chapter 1). Great book . . . short but sweet!
verkle
Dec 04, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Vietvet
3.3 / 5 (7) Dec 04, 2014
I have maintained that humans from old history were most likely wiser (i.e. smarter) that us modern humans. I want to be humble and acknowledge deficiencies of those of us living now.



YOU should be humble with all YOUR deficiencies
viko_mx
1.7 / 5 (6) Dec 04, 2014
I am not sure whether there was such species as Homo erectus, but I know that there is Homo stupidos species for sure. It is characterized by great confidence without foundation.These researchers can safely declare that this finding is aged 4 million years. Or 10 million years if they more likе rounded numbers. Who checks whether it is so or not in reality? There are no reliable dating method. The carbon dating method is very unsuitable for such virtual old findings. I'm sure that from the same site where is dug this finding, other samples will show a completely different age, as is usual hapen.
alfie_null
4.4 / 5 (7) Dec 04, 2014
I have maintained that humans from old history were most likely wiser (i.e. smarter) that us modern humans. I want to be humble and acknowledge deficiencies of those of us living now.

I'm guessing verkle's been told he can no longer push his anti-evolution, anti-science dogma on this site. So instead we get this?
jsdarkdestruction
4.3 / 5 (6) Dec 04, 2014
I have maintained that humans from old history were most likely wiser (i.e. smarter) that us modern humans. I want to be humble and acknowledge deficiencies of those of us living now.


What is your definition of "wiser ie smarter"? more likely to blindly believe in god(s) and magic super powers and miracles and doing silly rituals and the threat of some sort of eternal punishment if they didn't believe in it all and etc etc, does that pretty much sum it up verkle?
boro
5 / 5 (3) Dec 04, 2014
Ironic isn't it? One bunch of people want to believe in the onward progress and improvements in humans over their recent history, while another bunch need to believe in the errr... shall we call it spiritual and corporeal entropy due to the Fall. There is a tendency by the first group to conflate technical advances with increased intelligence, but there is no good reason to assume this. If intelligence is defined from a technological paradigm it is self-fulfilling.

viko_mx, the article above is incorrect. If you read the original article you will see that they used radio-argon dating. Can you explain the problems associated with this method?

I agree with foolspo though. The marks could have been made later.
I also notice there is a slightly sexist assumption here- "We don't know why he did it."
flashgordon
3 / 5 (2) Dec 04, 2014
People are barely worth talking to.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
4.2 / 5 (5) Dec 04, 2014
@boro: Well, creationists are just religious crackpots anyway, so that they would diverge all over the place (as SOP in religion and crackpotism both) is a given. That is why science became so rapidly useful, because it uncovers fact as opposed to unenlightened opinion.

It is really bothering them, hence the trolling. I would say "meaningless trolling" but it isn't, it is good because we can all see how false and immoral religion and its magic agency ideas is. That way they convert more people away from religious brainwashing. =D

Re "he", I [not having english as first language] thought the choice of male gender was simply standard for english use in anthropology, analogous to how ships always are "she". Any misogyny would then be historical, the basis for the original choice.
Faux Science Slayer
5 / 5 (2) Dec 05, 2014
The etching clearly says...."IM"....it took this Erectus clowns a half million years to send one IM.
viko_mx
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 06, 2014
@boro

Problem of all dating methods based on radioactive isotopes is that researchers do not know and can not be confident in their initial ratio in the sample. Also do not know whether the rate of conversion of one isotope to another in the forecast period has not changed under the impact of various physical factors and do not know whether the total concentration of radioactive isotopes in the studied sample has not changed under the action of various chemical agents (solvents) . There are too many unknowns in these methods in order to consider them credible.
tim_webb12
3 / 5 (4) Dec 06, 2014
Probably not widely known, because its implications are so profound, is that bremstrahlung radiation will strip electrons from radioactive elements' outer shells. Once this is done, the nucleus is destabilized and rapidly decays, orders of magnitude faster than the same element would decay if untroubled by such phenomena.
The overall picture then, is that commonly-given ages of artifacts unearthed are massively overestimated.
The source of these high-energy electrons seems to link to the catastrophic flexing of the earth's crust in 2348 BC; this would have unleashed a massive piezo-electric effect; at the time commonly known as the Great Deluge, or Noah's Flood.

"foolspoo"'s comment is interesting in this regard,
"...Ciochon says that those sediments could have entered the shells during the earlier flood event that created the site..."

boro
not rated yet Dec 06, 2014
tim webb said "bremstrahlung radiation will strip electrons from radioactive elements' outer shells."
Do you have any references about this effect? I've never heard of it before.
OdinsAcolyte
not rated yet Dec 08, 2014
Why? Because the artisan wanted to.
Same as now. We are old here. Older than one may think.

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