Homo erectus and zigzags

Homo erectus engraving

Earlier this month an amazing discovery was noted about the zigzag lines found on a piece of shell from Trinil, Indonesia, which suggest that they were made by our ancestors Homo erectus and in turn suggests that these hominids were capable of abstract thought. The discovery was announced in Nature.

Homo erectus engraving
Homo erectus engraving

Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving
Nature, doi:10.1038/nature13962

Oldest ever engraving discovered on 500,000-year-old shell
Science Daily, 03 December 2014

Shell ‘art’ made 300,000 years before humans evolved
New Scientist, 03 December 2014

Etchings on a 500,000-year-old shell appear to have been made by human ancestor
Science, 03 December 2014

Shells Engraved by Homo erectus Found in Museum Collection
Archaeology.org, 03 December 2014

World’s Oldest Art Identified in Half-Million-Year-Old Zigzag
National Geographic, 03 December 2014

Homo erectus may have doodled on shellfish
ABC News, 04 December 2014

Oldest engraving rewrites view of human history
AFP, via Bangkok Post 04 December 2014

ANU archaeologist helps discover earliest human engravings
Sydney Morning Herald

World’s oldest engraving discovered
Australian Geographic, 04 December 2014

Australian Archaeologist Dr Stephen Munro Discovers Earliest Human Engravings Discovered On 400,000-Year-Old Fossilised Shell
International Business Times, 05 December 2014

Another Ancient Discovery For Indonesia, and Human History
Wall Street Journal, 09 December 2014

The manufacture of geometric engravings is generally interpreted as indicative of modern cognition and behaviour. Key questions in the debate on the origin of such behaviour are whether this innovation is restricted to Homo sapiens, and whether it has a uniquely African origin1. Here we report on a fossil freshwater shell assemblage from the Hauptknochenschicht (‘main bone layer’) of Trinil (Java, Indonesia), the type locality of Homo erectus discovered by Eugène Dubois in 1891. In the Dubois collection (in the Naturalis museum, Leiden, The Netherlands) we found evidence for freshwater shellfish consumption by hominins, one unambiguous shell tool, and a shell with a geometric engraving. We dated sediment contained in the shells with 40Ar/39Ar and luminescence dating methods, obtaining a maximum age of 0.54 ± 0.10 million years and a minimum age of 0.43 ± 0.05 million years. This implies that the Trinil Hauptknochenschicht is younger than previously estimated. Together, our data indicate that the engraving was made by Homo erectus, and that it is considerably older than the oldest geometric engravings described so far. Although it is at present not possible to assess the function or meaning of the engraved shell, this discovery suggests that engraving abstract patterns was in the realm of Asian Homo erectus cognition and neuromotor control.

Full article here (subscription required).

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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