Image credit: Wim Lustenhouwer / VU University Amsterdam

Earlier this week, anthropologists announced that they uncovered the oldest known examples of engravings done by our ancient (very ancient) ancestors. A series of small, intentionally carved scratches on the inside of a fossilized shell have been dated to a time that passed  some 540,000 years ago.

This find is at least four times older than what was previously the oldest known etched artifact—geometric carvings in a sample of ochre found in South Africa’s Blombos Cave. Consequently, researchers state that the discovery will force us to reconsider what we believed we knew about some of the oldest peoples, specifically, the early humans known as Homo erectus (one of our pre-Neanderthal ancestors).

Image credit: University of  Amsterdam

Ultimately, this find alters our understanding of the tools that were used by of some of the earliest peoples. Stephen Munro, from School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra, states that this, "rewrites human history. This is the first time we have found evidence for Homo erectus behaving this way. It puts these large bivalve shells and the tools used to engrave them, into the hands of Homo erectus, and will change the way we think about this early human species.”

The shell was actually discovered some time ago, over a century ago, in fact. However, we only recently noticed the engravings.

In 1891, Dutch paleontologist Eugene Dubois located the shells on the banks of the Bengawan Solo river in East Java. They were found along with the remains of one of the oldest humans, the "Java Man." At the time of its discovery, the Java Man was heralded as "the missing link" between modern humans and apes (now we now know that there is no "missing link," but a stratification of remains peppered throughout our evolutionary timeline that link us to our prehuman and protohuman ancestors). But regardless of how the find was received at the time, eventually, the remains of this individual led to the creation of the category Homo erectus, or "upright human."

For some time, the fossils sat in a historical collection. Then, seven years ago, archaeologist Josephine Joordens of Leiden University in the Netherlands took an interest in the collection. She was sent a picture of the shell, and she knew that she had to conduct further investigations into these strange etchings. “It was a eureka moment. I could see immediately that they were man-made engravings. There was no other explanation,” Joordens states.

The team published their reports in Nature, and in the article, they note that some of the shells displayed further evidence of tool use by Homo erectus to alter them in useful ways. Some of the shells also had holes ‘drilled’ into them by a shark’s tooth. These holes appear directly where the muscle was originally attached. This means the ancient humans knew where and how to damage the sea creature so the clamped-up shell would pop open.

Image credit: Henk Caspers / Naturalis Leiden / The Netherlands

As to the engravings, the team has refrained from speculating about their significance in order to avoid any unscientific assumptions about what the engraving could mean or what purpose it served. Archaeologist Wil Roebroeks, also from Leiden University, states “We have no clue why somebody made it half a million years ago, and we explicitly refrain from speculating on it.”

Joordens and her team used modern technology in order to better understand this historic treasure. Through carbon dating, the shells are estimated to be between 430,000 and 540,000 years old.

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