A 300,000-Year-Old Piece of Art

A 300,000-Year-Old Piece of Art

The shell carved by Homo erectus is the oldest carving that was recently found by archeologists. This little piece of art is challenging our understanding about the origin of art and complex human thinking. The artist, if he or she could be named in this way, was the right-handed and used a tooth of shark. The hand was particularly stable and firm. Half a million years ago, on the banks of a calm river on the central island of Java, this hand carved a deep zigzag in a shell of a mollusk. We will never know what was going on in the mind of that person, but a clear line has opened a new perspective to the origins of our modern creative mind.

The Object

The line was found carved in the shell of a fossilized freshwater mollusk and it might be about half a million years old. The line is the oldest carving that was found so far. This date also means that the line was carved by the older hominins called Homo erectus two or three hundred thousand years before our species evolved. According to scientists, this is a stunning discovery. The oldest abstract decoration in the world is important news. The shell was found in the tenth nineteenth century by Dutch geologist Eugene Dubois, and it was one of many fossils found at the same site, including the bones of Homo erectus and several pre-historic animals.

The collection of shells has been put at the Leiden Museum, the Netherlands, for more than a century. Seven years ago, PhD student Stephen Munro, who now works at the Australian National University in Canberra, was in the Netherlands for a few days with archaeologist Josephine Joordens of Leiden University. At the time, she was re-researching the Dubois collection, and since Munro was also researching ancient mollusks, Joordens offered to inspect this collection as well. As he was in a rush to reach a plane back to Australia, he took pictures of each shell and later noticed that one shell has some strange scratch that could not be evolved naturally

The Research

After many new investigations, it was found that one shell turned out to be a tool with sharpened edge and it might be used for scraping. When the team made similar holes for live mollusks, the muscle injury forced the shell to break through. It was probably a quiet riverside environment with lots of mollusks. Therefore, it is likely that the hominins who lived in that place used shells as tools. The whole area was buried suddenly, probably due to a volcanic eruption or a sudden flood.

The Research
The Research

One shell was exceptional because it had a weird line. Experiments have shown that the line is too deep and too straight to be made with a relaxed hand, as a result, it was done with a purpose. The shell of fresh mollusks is covered with a dark brown layer so the scratch would be bright white. All of this indicates that the line was cut purposefully, but unlike tools, this line has no obvious function. It could have been a decoration. This is important because Homo sapiens was thought to be the first species to develop an abstract, non-functional design. It has not been recorded that any other species or animals, even chimpanzees, have made non-functional markings.