Earliest Human Engraving Or Trash From An Ancient Lunch?

Earliest Human Engraving Or Trash From An Ancient Lunch?

5:52pm Dec 18, 2014
An inside view of this fossil Pseudodon shell shows that the hole made by Homo erectus is exactly at the spot where the muscle attached to the shell. Poking at that spot would force the shell open.
An inside view of this fossil Pseudodon shell shows that the hole made by Homo erectus is exactly at the spot where the muscle attached to the shell. Poking at that spot would force the shell open.
Henk Caspers / Naturalis Leiden/The Netherlands
  • An inside view of this fossil Pseudodon shell shows that the hole made by Homo erectus is exactly at the spot where the muscle attached to the shell. Poking at that spot would force the shell open.

    An inside view of this fossil Pseudodon shell shows that the hole made by Homo erectus is exactly at the spot where the muscle attached to the shell. Poking at that spot would force the shell open.

    Henk Caspers / Naturalis Leiden/The Netherlands

  • Detail of the zigzag engraving on the fossil Pseudodon shell.

    Detail of the zigzag engraving on the fossil Pseudodon shell.

    Wim Lustenhouwer / VU University Amsterdam

Scientists have discovered enigmatic markings on an ancient shell that's been sitting in a museum for more than a century — and they believe this may be the oldest known example of a deliberate geometric engraving made by a human hand.

The carved zigzag marks, described in this week's issue of the journal Nature, appear on a shell that was collected at the end of the 19th century by the Dutch anatomist Dr. Eugene Dubois, who was fascinated by the then-radical idea of human evolution. He set out to Indonesia to search for fossils that would provide a missing link — and prove that humans descended from apes.

Dubois famously discovered the remains of what scientists now call Homo erectus, an extinct human species that appeared more than a million years ago.

Dubois also collected other specimens from an excavation site on the island of Java, including numerous shells, which are now held at a natural history museum in the Netherlands.

About seven years ago, a marine biologist-turned-archaeologist, Josephine Joordens of Leiden University, was examining those shells to try to reconstruct what the environment looked like when those early humans lived there.

"Was it a river?" she asks. "Was the sea very close? Was it a lake? In that context I started looking at the shells from the collection."

A colleague took photos of the shells. Later, he noticed faint markings on one of them. "He sent me an email with a photo attached," she recalls, "and he said, 'Well, Josie, what do you think? What are we looking at here?' And we looked at it and we thought, well, it's kind of strange."

Maybe some animal made the lines, they thought. Or maybe it was a fake — etchings created by people in the museum.

After years of study, however, she says they concluded this: "It was not an animal, it was not something natural. It must have been a human." And, she says, the carving is very old.

She says it resembles early geometric engravings found on ochre in Blombos Cave in South Africa, from around 100,000 years ago. Yet a couple of different techniques for dating sediments found in the Java shells show that this carving was made between 430,000 and 540,000 years ago.

"It's at least four times as old," says Joordens. "Also, we are not talking now about our own species, modern humans, but we are talking about Homo erectus, a species that's older even than Neanderthals. It's putting the origin of such engraving behavior a lot farther back in time."

In Nature, the scientists and a team of other researchers describe a slew of studies they did on the shells that Dubois collected. Overall, they say, the results show that Homo erectus engaged in surprisingly sophisticated behavior.

"It's not that we just have this one isolated engraving, but it forms part of a much more extensive and systematic use and exploitation of these freshwater shells," says Joordens.

Many of the shells have one or two holes right at a particular spot. The holes appear to be made with a pointed object like a shark tooth, using a rotating motion. The research team did experiments showing that drilling into this spot would poke the muscle of this shellfish and make it open.

Also, they found one shell that appears to have been shaped to be a tool for cutting or scraping.

And they did extensive microscopic analyses on the apparent engraving. Joordens notes that when the shell was fresh, it would have had a black exterior; the engraver would have produced a striking pattern of white lines on a black background.

Other experts on human origins say the finds are intriguing. "Somebody — and it pretty much has to be Homo erectus, this was the original Homo erectus site — was deliberately processing shellfish as a food source and also as tools," says Pat Shipman, an adjunct professor of anthropology at Penn State University. "Both of those observations are very unusual for something of such age."

As for the lines that seem to be engraved, Shipman says, "I don't know what they mean. I don't have a clue what they mean. But they're not finding similar things on all of the shells. It's not some ordinary process that the shells are going through that happens to all of them naturally."

Others express skepticism that these markings truly indicate that Homo erectus was capable of the kind of symbolic thought that's associated with our own species.

"This is a find that is problematical in several ways," says John Shea, a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York. "It sits there in the archaeological record with nothing like it around for hundreds of thousands of years, and thousands and thousands of miles. If this is symbolic behavior by Homo erectus, then it's basically the only evidence we've got for a species that lived for a million-and-a-half years on three continents."

Other examples of early geometric carvings, such as those on ostrich egg fragments found at the Diepkloof Rock Shelter in South Africa that date back to around 60,000 years ago, are much more elaborate than the etchings on this one shell, notes Alison Brooks, a paleoanthropologist at George Washington University.

"Maybe it's not as intentional a design as they imply," she says, noting that a young Homo erectus child may simply have picked up the tool a parent used to open a shell, and tried it out.

Still, she says, the museum's shells and the stories they may tell have opened a fascinating new window into the life of Homo erectus. "It raises the possibility that the development of human cognition — human culture — was a very long process," says Brooks. "It was not a sudden development."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH: Natural history museums generally have vast collections of scientific specimens stashed away. This next story is about a surprise find in one collection that's been sitting around for more than a century. It's an ancient mussel shell and NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports strange markings on the shell may tell us something about the evolution of our species.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Back in the late 19th century, the idea that humans had evolved was pretty radical. It fascinated a Dutch physician named Eugene Dubois. In 1891, he was digging for fossils on the island of Java in Indonesia.

JOSEPHINE JOORDENS: To try and find what he called the missing link between apes and modern humans.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Josephine Joordens of Leiden University in the Netherlands. She says Dubois did find the bones of an apelike creature that walked upright - the first example of Homo erecuts, an extinct human species that lived long before modern humans. It's a famous discovery. Less well-known is that Dubois collected a lot of other stuff from that archaeological site.

JOORDENS: Many other animals and plants and, you know, fish and birds and shells. And they've been stored in a museum - Naturalis - now for over a hundred years.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Joordens was looking at the shells because she wanted to understand the environment that those early humans had lived in. A colleague photographed the shells and later in one photo of a big white mussel shell he noticed something odd.

JOORDENS: It has a kind of zigzag engraving. So it looks like a pattern that sometimes you still find nowadays on, you know, pottery for decoration.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: To Joordens and her colleague, it just didn't make any sense. Homo erectus used tools, but was thought to be too primitive to think abstractly or make symbolic designs.

JOORDENS: We looked at it and we thought well, it's kind of strange and maybe some animal made it or it's - I don't know - sands grains or maybe even a fake.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The researchers ended up doing an exhaustive series of studies on this shell and others and came to the conclusion that Homo erectus was actually pretty sophisticated. In the journal "Nature," they say it's clear these early humans had come up with a clever trick to open the shellfish, drilling holes in a particular spot on the shell. They also used one shell to make a scraping tool. What's more, all the evidence suggests that Homo erectus really did engrave that geometric design about half a million years ago.

JOORDENS: I find it a very touching find because it's so much similar to what we as humans would make ourselves and that tells you something about this Homo erectus species that we didn't know before.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And it means complex human behaviors, like art, may go back farther than we thought. This is a big claim to make. Alison Brooks is a paleoanthropologist at George Washington University. She says what's previously been accepted as the oldest human engravings were made hundreds of thousands of years later on chunks of ochre and the shells of ostrich eggs. Those designs are much more complicated than the lines on this mussel shell.

ALISON BROOKS: Even though it's apparently a zigzag pattern, I think there's going to be some controversy about it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says it's possible that Homo erectus made the pattern, but...

BROOKS: Maybe it's not as intentional a design as they implied.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: One person who's extremely skeptical is John Shea, a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University.

JOHN SHEA: If this is symbolic behavior by Homo erectus then it's basically the only evidence we've got for a species that lived for a million-and-a-half years on three continents.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says if it's true, people should be able to find more shells like this and now they'll be looking. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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