Half a million years ago, Homo erectus was using freshwater mussel shells both as a tool and a canvas for engraving. This new finding quashes the assumption that modern humans began to create similar engravings only 100,000 years ago. The discovery was made by a team at Leiden University and could have profound implications in understanding the evolution of human behaviour.
The research group, led by archaeologist José Joordens, studied finds and sediments from a Homo erectus survey site at Trinil, on the Indonesian island of Java. The collection was excavated by Dutch physician and researcher Eugène Dubois in the 19th century and has been held at the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre ever since. As such, the discovery of the engraved ‘zigzag’ pattern on one shell was a complete surprise. Further analysis has eliminated the possibility of the weathering or animal activity being the cause.
Two separate dating methods were used to determine that the shell with the etching is between 430,000 and 540,000 years old. This makes it the oldest known human engraving at four times the age of previous equivalents found in Africa. However, it cannot be confirmed whether or not this is an example of a form of early art. Wil Roebroeks, Professor of Paleaolithic Archeology at Leiden said that ‘at the moment we have no clue about the meaning or purpose of this engraving’.
Nevertheless, the discovery sheds unexpected light on the skills and behaviour of Homo erectus and may act as a further stepping stone to understanding hominid evolution. More obscurely, the study raises the possibility that Asia is a promising, and as yet relatively unexplored, area for future research.