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World’s Oldest Engraving by Homo erectus

  1. Dec 4, 2014 #1


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    Amazing, a piece of creative expression... between 540,000 and 430,000 years old... made by Homo erectus. "The engraving was probably made on a fresh shell specimen still retaining its brown [skin], which would have produced a striking pattern of white lines on a dark ‘canvas'"

    World’s Oldest Engraving Upends Theory of Homo sapiens Uniqueness


    The discoverer rightly says "But perhaps the most thrilling aspects of this find are that it suggests that many more such items—300,000 years’ worth, in fact–are out there awaiting discovery, and it raises the question of just how much farther back in the human lineage such behaviors might have originated."
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  3. Dec 4, 2014 #2


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    Is there any provenance attached to this? Found recently? Midden heap where? Been rattling around in a collection and just recently noticed?
  4. Dec 4, 2014 #3


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    The discovery is published today in Nature: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature13962.html

    The shell was found in Trinil (Java, Indonesia).

    The abstract:
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  5. Dec 4, 2014 #4


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    Been rattling around in a museum collection for 120 years? I hope the Leiden collections have been much more carefully curated than what I've seen elsewhere. I read "411 M" from the picture, as if someone scratched an identification with an awl. Fingers crossed that isn't the case.
  6. Dec 4, 2014 #5
    I share your skepticism. The marks look much too much like modern numerals and letters. They don't look like geometric decoration. It's as if some relatively modern person was merely exploring the fact you could scratch marks into the shell. That could have been some laborer helping Eugene Dubois for all anyone knows.
  7. Dec 5, 2014 #6


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    I was reading an article about this just this morning, but in that article, you couldn't even make out the markings. Thanks Monique.
  8. Dec 5, 2014 #7
    The critique seems to be centered around that the location is such that the current find could have been found and used for engraving by later H. sapiens. (Which, I gather, often used that zigzag pattern.) [ https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpres...worlds-oldest-graffiti-by-homo-erectus-maybe/ ]

    It seems from the above link that the original research attempt to exclude that possibility, but I don't know how good that evidence is.

    Another problem would be sparse statistics, neither being able to reject or confirm that it is a one off engraving.
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2014
  9. Dec 5, 2014 #8
    Here is a closer look (I hope)

  10. Dec 6, 2014 #9


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    Roughly contemporaneous to these potentially symbolic engravings are the potentially ritual burials at Atapuerca, Spain.

    The Mystery of the Pit of Bones, Atapuerca, Spain
    Did Homo heidelbergensis bury their dead in the Pit of Bones 500,000 years ago?
    Species: Homo heidelbergensis
    At the bottom of a natural cave shaft, 43 feet deep, the Pit of Bones preserves some 28 individuals of Homo heidelbergensis. The bones of cave bears also occur in the pit. It’s thought that the bears tumbled down the shaft by accident while seeking places to hibernate. But what about the early human bodies? No signs of tool butchery or other food remains occur. A single stone handaxe was the only tool found in the pit, made of a type of stone unknown in the vicinity. According to some researchers, the bodies must have been purposely thrown in by their relatives in a kind of ritual burial. Others say, if it’s a ritual, why aren’t other burials known until much later? The Pit of Bones remains a hot issue in human origins.

    Heidelbergensis were also noted for sophisticated spears, dating to roughly 400,000 years ago.

    But the three wooden spears appear definitely to have been designed for hunting big game, Dr. Thieme and other experts said. Each one, an average of six feet long and two inches in maximum diameter, was carved from the trunk of a spruce tree. A sharp tip was carved at the base of the trunk, where the wood is hardest.

    The center of gravity, or balance point, of each spear is almost exactly one-third of the way from the point, which suggests that these were weapons designed to be thrown at a large animal. Since they are heavy and were made with care along the same aerodynamic lines as a modern javelin, experts said, it is unlikely the spears would have been thrown at the occasional squirrel. Instead, they said, these people were after bigger game and investing considerable thought and time into the hunt.

    ''Found in association with stone tools and the butchered remains of more than 10 horses,'' Dr. Thieme wrote in Nature, ''the spears strongly suggest that systematic hunting, involving foresight, planning and the use of appropriate technology, was part of the behavioral repertoire of pre-modern hominids.''

    Obsidian tipped javelins have been found in Eithiopia, dating to 280,000 years, also predating homo sapiens.

  11. Dec 10, 2014 #10
    John Hawks comes down on the side of supporting the find. That alays my problems:

    "The authors considered many alternative scenarios and convincingly show that the design was created deliberately by early humans:

    " [snip] Our study of the morphology of the zigzags, internal morphology of the grooves, and differential roughness of the surrounding shell area demonstrates that the grooves were deliberately engraved and predate shell burial and weathering (Extended Data Fig. 5)." [snip]

    So what can we make of this artifact? I think the most important thing to take away is that it is unlikely to be unique.

    It's a recurrent phenomenon in the study of early "art" objects that they lay unrecognized in museum collections for years after their initial excavation."

    And he goes on to show similar dated artifacts on bones and ivory, and a putative common motif that extends to (younger) Neanderthal ochre artifacts.

    This is the take home message:

    "It is precisely these kinds of regularities that enable us to recognize the objects as "concept-mediated", that is, guided by an intentional mind in some way. Even though they are not representational -- at least not in an iconic, pictorial sense -- the markings can be recognized as intentional. Most of these objects are much more ambiguous than the shell from Trinil. The shell marks required the maker to match the beginning and ending points of lines with each other, requiring deliberate precision.

    I do not think we can dismiss doodling as meaningless. But neither do I think we can promote it as highly meaningful. Meaning is something that archaeologists cannot reach. What we can say is that these artifacts carry information about the capabilities of their makers."

    [ http://johnhawks.net/weblog/archaeology/lower/trinil-shell-engraving-2014.html ]
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