A fossilised etched river mussel shell, dated to between 430,000 and 540,000 years old, from Java in Indonesia is being attributed to one of our immediate ancestors, Homo erectus and so becomes the oldest known engraving, beating the previous earliest by some 300,000 years and the first to be unequivocably pre-modern. This early artist from our remote ancestry unwittingly left an important message for those with the scientific literacy to read it.
This find is highly significant, if it turns out to be what it's claimed to be, because it's the first real evidence that making abstract designs is not something unique to modern humans. Of course, the reasons the etching was done can only be guessed at. It could have been done to decorate a gift or useful object, for simple aesthetic pleasure or even as a tally or aide memoir of some sort but what it shows is that H. erectus had the cognitive and motor skills to make the etching - something that was assumed to be unique to H. sapiens and probably H. neanderthalensis.
|Close up of the engraving|
This find represents a paradox for creationist pseudo-scientists because any such fraud worth his salt would be jumping up and down and claiming the fact that we recognise these marks as the work of an intelligent designer implies that science supports the 'Intelligent Design' hoax they are currently foisting on a scientifically illiterate target audience. However, to make full use of that argument they would have to acknowledge the scientific evidence that pre-modern humans were alive between 430,000 and 550,000 years ago.
Female Homo erectus.
Reconstruction by John Gurche,
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
Science doesn't use that lazy and intellectually bankrupt gap argument combined with a false dichotomy like creation pseudo-scientists do to arrive at their sacred and unchangeable conclusion when they argue that, because they can't think of how else it could have been made, it must have been the locally popular god that did it. The reasons for thinking the marks must have been made by an intelligent being, and were made some 500,000 years ago are set out in the paper in Nature.
The fossils was not simply picked up somewhere in Java but was found in a museum in Holland along with other specimens unearthed at Trinil by Eugène Dubois in 1891. Dubois found the first evidence of archaic hominids in South East when he discovered what was then called 'Java Man', now recognised as H. erectus. Dating methods on the sediment associated with the fossil placed it within the range 430,000- 540,000 years old.
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 origin. 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.
From examination of other mussel shells found at the Trinil site it appears that the local population of H. erectus had developed a technique for opening river mussels by using a sharp object such as a shark tooth, also found at the site, to make a small hole in the shell over the adductor muscle insertion point so easily opening the bivalve shells. A shark tooth could have been used to make the zigzag pattern found on this particular shell.
Putting this together, it is reasonable to conclude that the zigzag pattern was made using tools readily to hand. Considerable care seems to have been used because the lines meet up precisely with no crossing over or gaps.
So where does this leave our emerging picture of the evolution of hominids and of the Homo genus in particular?
It means we need to revise our assumptions that the cognitive abilities and necessary motor skills to draw and even to write were only acquired by modern humans. It also reinforces the idea that we were wrong to assume that only modern humans had the necessary intellect to come out of Africa, where we had adapted to local conditions, and to adapt quickly to other conditions in order to exploit the opportunities offered in Euro-Asia and elsewhere. This view had taken a severe battering anyway by the discovery of H. floresiensis (the 'Hobbit') on Flores Island and in fact by the presence of H. erectus over much of Asia. These were certainly not modern humans and the immediate ancestor of H. floresiensis may even have pre-dated H. erectus being closer to H. habilis.
These hominids are believed to be the intermediates between the Australopithecines such as A. afarensis ("Lucy") or A. sediba and H. erectus. The Homo genus of course emerged seamlessly from the Australopithecus genus. So, if it required a threshold level of intellectual ability and/or manual dexterity to survive outside our African homelands, this threshold may already have been crossed by H. habilis. Now it seems the intellectual threshold to make and appreciate abstract design, the precursors of the ability to read and write, and the origin of art and aestheticism, may have been crossed at least by H. erectus.
But, the ability to 'read' animal tracks is an ancient skill in humans and was probably one of the first learned skills that gave a significant advantage to those who could not only read this information to their advantage but could teach the skill to their children that gave an evolutionary advantage to pattern recognition and learning abilities that a larger brain provided. Our ability to recognise and benefit from pattern recognition, in other words to see and interpret the information left by other animals and other humans, may have been a key stage in our early development.
The fact that some people express surprise at the possibility that we might not have been the first to develope some of the cognitive abilities we normally think of as uniquely modern human, betrays the fact that some people, maybe subconsciously, still have an anthropocentric view of modern humans as the apex of some assumed deterministic evolutionary process which was intended to produce humans, or that evolution is a series of discrete events where a more advanced species quite suddenly emerges from an earlier one. In facts, of course, evolution is a gradual process of slow change over time which taxonomist then try to fit into a series of discrete and defined types. In reality there is no distinct point at which a new species emerges from an earlier one so it's not really surprising that some of our characteristics and abilities might well have been present in our archaic ancestors.
Then of course there is the idiotic creationist view that there were no ancestors of modern humans and we have only been around for a few thousand years having been made by magic one day; a view which can only be sustained by carefully ignoring evidence such as this 500,000 year-old decorated fossil shell of an extinct river mussel, or carefully nurturing the inability to read the message on it.
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