Shell artefact reveals the artistic mind of Homo Erectus

A simple – yet skilfully carved ­– shell found on the banks of a river in central Java is questioning what we knew about art and complex human thought.  About half a million years old, the shell is by far the oldest hand-carved artefact ever found.  The date places it about two to three hundred thousand years before Homo Sapiens, making it the product of the – until now believed unartistic – mind of a Homo Erectus.

A shell hand-carved by Homo Erectus is the oldest engraving ever found, questioning what we knew about the ‘unartistic’ mind of our old ancestors (credit: W. Lustenhouwer, VU University Amsterdam)

A shell hand-carved by Homo Erectus is the oldest engraving ever found, questioning what we knew about the ‘unartistic’ mind of our old ancestors (credit: W. Lustenhouwer, VU University Amsterdam)

The carved shell was part of a collection originally dug up in Trinil, Indonesia, in the 1890s by Dutch geologist Eugene Dubois together with many other fossils, including bones of Homo Erectus and other animals. For over a century, it sat anonymously in a museum in Leiden, the Netherlands. Then seven years ago, it was spotted almost by chance by PhD student Stephen Munro, now at the Australian National University in Canberra, who took a picture of it without initially noticing the decorative carving. Since then, all the clams in the collection have been meticulously documented and dated between 430,000 and 540,000 years ago. The study showed extremely interesting results. One of the shells was possibly used as a tool, while many others were found with a hole pierced where the clam muscle attaches to the shell, indicating the intent of whoever did it to damage the muscle and cause the shell to open.

A study conducted by paleoanthropologist Francesco d’Errico at the University of Bordeaux, France, also shows that the engraving on the decorated shell was purposefully made with a shark’s tooth, many of which were also found on the site. While deliberate, the carving – which would have been of a striking white on the dark brown coat of the Pseudodon clam – does not seem to have any obvious function other than to be a decoration. This is of great importance as Homo Sapiens was thought to be – at least up until now – the first species to produce ‘artistic’ non-functional artefacts.

“It’s very carefully done” says Andrew Whiten, a psychologist and primatologist at the University of St Andrews in the UK. “There is a wonderfully straight section and the [etch] turns in one continuous line. That’s not just intentional but careful in what strikes as a very modern way. Apes aren’t doing that. It would be staggering if they did”. “We cannot look into the mind of the person who made it” – Josephine Joordens, archaeologist at the University of Leiden commented. Yet that tidy, purposefully made decorative line cannot be but a hint that, maybe, our distant ancestors already possessed, half a million years ago, a sense for aesthetics.

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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