​Homo erectus made engravings half a million years ago

Homo erectus made the world’s oldest engravings about half a million years ago. Dutch scientist revealed this spectacular finding, which overturns the way we look at early man, this week in Nature.

The samples which Prof. Jakob Wallinga received about five years ago from archaeologists of Leiden University seemed like ordinary sand grains. The expert in luminescence dating, who at that time worked at the Reactor Institute Delft, along with his colleagues, had been asked to date these little grains. When Wallinga obtained the first results he knew right away that the implications were spectacular. They showed that Homo erectus made the world’s oldest engravings about half a million years ago.

The researchers from Leiden had scraped the sand grains out of shells found on Java in the late 1800s. One of these shells bears markings – a zigzag engraving – that seem to have been carved intentionally with a shark tooth. They are by far the oldest abstract markings ever found.

The oldest marking found until then is an engraving in ochre, ascribed to modern humans, found in South Africa. It is thought to be a 100,000 years old.

What’s more, until the discovery of the shell engraving, nothing approximating art had been ascribed to Homo erectus. The species went extinct around 140,000 years ago. Most paleoanthropologists consider the species to be the direct ancestor of both humans and Neanderthals.

“This is a truly spectacular find and has the potential to overturn the way we look at early Homo,” said Nick Barton, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford, in a editorial article in Nature.

The first author of the Nature publication is biologist Josephine Joordens from Leiden University. Unfortunately for TU Delft, Wallinga and his research group moved to Wageningen University in 2012 and finished off the dating work there. 

With luminescence dating, minerals, or in this case sand grains, are illuminated with a laser gun. This causes radiation energy to release from the grains of sand. That energy has been build up inside the mineral while it was buried, under the influence of the natural background radiation that we, and everything on the planet, are continuously exposed to. The longer a mineral stays in place, the more radiation it builds up, and the stronger its luminescence signal becomes.

Joordens J.C.A., et., al. Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving, Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature19362.

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