Researchers claim they have discovered the world’s oldest drawing, an abstract doodle on a half-million-year-old shell that has been in scientists’ possession for more than 100 years.
The shell was found by Dutch paleontologist Eugène Dubois in Java in the 1890s, next to the first discovered remains of Homo erectus, a hominid species that predated humans and lived between 1.9 million and 143,000 years ago. The remains were studied in the 1930s and since then have sat in a box in a museum in the Netherlands. Biologist Josephine Joordens of Leiden University was studying how Homo erectus used marine tools, when she stumbled across intentional-looking marks on the back of the shell.
Close inspection under the microscope suggested that the engraving was intentional. The weathering patterns of the grooves, each of which is about 1 centimetre long, show signs of significant ageing, and there are no gaps between turns, indicating that the maker paid attention to detail. He or she probably made the engraving on a fresh shell, and the newly made etching would have resembled white lines on a dark canvas, Joordens’ team notes. Sand grains still embedded in the shell were dated to around 500,000 years ago.
“People never found this engraving because it’s hardly visible,” said Joordens in Nature. “It’s only when you have light from a certain angle that it stands out.” She is now sure that this pattern was made intentionally by the hominid species. “We’ve looked at all possibilities, but in the end we are really certain that this must have been made by an agent who did a very deliberate action with a very sharp implement,” she says. “What was meant by the person who did this, we simply don’t know. It could have been to impress his girlfriend, or to doodle a bit, or to mark the shell as his own property.”
“This discovery is huge for our understanding of pre-human hominids. “This is a truly spectacular find and has the potential to overturn the way we look at early Homo,” said archeologist Nick Barton of University of Oxford. 100,000-year-old ochre carvings in South Africa are currently the oldest art known to have been made by Homo sapiens. Another ancient engraving was attributed to Neanderthals, but up until now, no self-expression by Homo erectus had been found. The findings suggests a greater level of brain functioning in proto-human species than previously thought. “I’ve been suggesting increasingly strongly that a lot of these things that are meant to be modern human we’re finding in other hominids,” Clive Finlayson, a zoologist who helped discover the Neanderthal carvings, said. “We really need to revisit these concepts and take stock.”