Art from half a million years ago

original fossils of Pithecanthropus erectus (n...
Original fossils of Pithecanthropus erectus (now Homo erectus) found By Eugene Dubois in Java in 1891 (credit: Wikipedia)

Eugene Dubois, an anatomist at the University of Amsterdam in the late 19th century, became enthralled by an idea that humans had evolved in what is now Indonesia, contrary to Charles Darwin’s suggestion of an African origin. So much so that Dubois took the extraordinary step of joining the Dutch army and scrounging a posting to the Dutch East Indies to facilitate his search for a ‘missing link’, accompanied by his wife and newborn daughter. After a four-year quest, in 1891 he discovered the upper cranium and brow of a being that was obviously related to us, but also quite distinct as regards its beetling brow ridges. Pithecanthropus erectus (now Homo erectus) raised a storm of controversy, sadly only resolved in Dubois’s favour after his death in 1940. Yet, as well as mounting the first deliberate search for human ancestors, Dubois collected everything possible in the sediments at Trinil, Java, so in a sense he was also an early palaeoecologist. The collection gathered dust in Leiden for the best part of a century, until archaeologist Josephine Joordens of the University of Leiden took on the task of reviewing its contents in 2007 (Joordens, J.C.A. and 20 others 2014. Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving. Nature (on-line): doi:10.1038/nature13962).

Progressively enlarged views of freshwater clam from Eugene Dubois's collecti9on from Trimil, showing clear evidence of deliberate engraving. (credit: Joordens et al., 2014 in Nature; photos by Wim Lustenhouwer, VU University Amsterdam
Progressively enlarged views of freshwater clam from Eugene Dubois’s collection from Trinil, showing clear evidence of deliberate engraving. (credit: Joordens et al., 2014 in Nature; photos by Wim Lustenhouwer, VU University Amsterdam)

Homo erectus clearly had a taste for freshwater clams and lots of their shells figure in the Trinil collection: all are of similar large size rather than showing a wide variation according to age, suggesting a shell midden rather than a natural assemblage. A piece of serendipity revealed what may prove to be the anthropological find of the year. High-quality photos of the shells taken by a visiting mollusc specialist showed up evidence that one of them had been meticulously engraved. Its surface had a near-perfectly geometric, zig-zag pattern deeply gouged by someone with a steady hand, who probably used an associated shark’s tooth as a scribing tool. Since the molluscs in life bear a dark, chitinous veneer the etching would have been more striking when freshly made. Another of these sturdy shells also show signs of having had its edge sharpened, suggesting that they were used for tools such as scrapers or graters.

The stratigraphy at Trinil suggested that the engraved shell and tools were coeval with Homo erectus, but that needed proof. Using sediment grains trapped in the shells and a combination of 40Ar/39Ar and thermoluminescence dating, the team have shown that they and the human fossils from Trinil date to between 430 and 540 thousand years ago: at least 350 ka older than the very similar engravings made by an anatomically modern human on ochre that was found at Blombos Cave in South Africa. The next-oldest putative artwork is the controversial ‘Venus’ found at Berekhat Ram on the Israel-Syria border, dated between 250 and 280 ka.

Engraved ochre from Blombos Cave, South Africa. (credit Chris Henshilwood)
Engraved ochre from Blombos Cave, South Africa. (credit: Chris Henshilwood)

Probably the majority of palaeoanthropologists have dismissed humans other than ­H. sapiens as being cognitively incapable of either abstract or figurative art. The general view is that the mental capacity to create art or design began with the creation of the Blombos engraving, was restricted to anatomically modern humans and only exploded in Europe after they had migrated there by about 40 ka. A few argue that portable art, such as the Trinil and Blombos engravings, is bound by its very nature to be rare and easily overlooked. Whether having some use – counting? – merely being the making of an idle ‘doodle’ or expressing some unknowable ritual significance, the Trinil etching is a result of creativity and controlled skill that could only be the product of the H. erectus mind. Moreover, the very close comparison with the 0.35 Ma younger Blombos engraving suggests the product of a consciousness little different from that of our direct ancestors of 75 ka ago.