Art and humans go hand in hand. In fact, they’re so intertwined researchers have tried to use art as a way to identify the intellectual emergence of our species. Whilst other members of the human family have produced objects that could be labelled “art” their masterpieces are often very circumstantial, debatable or isolated. Homo sapiens are the only true artists, and true art is the sign of Homo sapiens! At least, until yesterday. Because yesterday researchers announced the first discovery of clear, pre-human art.
This amazing new discovery comes not from an archaeological excavation, but the backrooms of a museum. Scientists were re-examining discoveries from Java, Indonesia – found by Dubois in the 1890s – when they found an odd shell. For those of you paying attention that’s the same Dubois who discovered “Java man” and Homo erectus. The shell showed signs of having been opened and the contents eaten by early humans, which wasn’t particularly odd. It also had a sharpened edge, indicating it had been used as a cutting tool after. Again, nothing odd about that. No, what makes this shell worth talking about is the zig-zag engraving1.
Actually, what makes it really special is the age of it (and its engraving). Although Dubois couldn’t accurately date it, later luminescence dating of sediment clinging to the shell revealed it was 400,000 – 500,000 years old. That makes this artwork more than twice as old as our species and almost 4 times the age of the previous earliest art1.
This places it at a time when the shell’s home was inhabited by Dubois’ Homo erectus1. This human ancestor is notable for being one of the first species to begin evolving an larger brain; although they still couldn’t hold a candle to us2. Or could they? Maybe we’ll have to re-evaluate the intellectual capabilities of our ancestors in light of this discovery. Or maybe just abandon all attempts of trying to link art to intelligence.
To be fair to ol’ Homo erectus, this isn’t the first time someone has tried to argue they had artistic ability. They’re also famous for producing symmetrical, bifacial tools. Some have argued that this symmetry didn’t make the tools any better. Thus, it was done for aesthetic, perhaps symbolic reasons. Maybe to show off how good at tool making you were and thus how great a mate you’d be. However, this argument has yet to gain widespread acceptance. This new engraving is a much more definite example of Homo erectus making art.
However, I don’t think the most interesting thing about this discovery is who made it, how smart they were or how old the art is. Rather, what I think is amazing is just how similar this engraving is to some of the first art made by Homo sapiens. Roll the clock forwards to a mere 100,000 years ago and we find the first modern humans making some of the first art3. And we’re also making engravings. Specifically, zig-zag engravings. Kinda like those just discovered. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Maybe zig-zags are just easy to make. Or maybe it’s because we are so similar, cognitively speaking, to these ancient humans that the same sorts of shapes and patterns are visually appealing to the both of us. I think that’s a fascinating possibility.
Now, at this point I might normally offer a critique of the research; but there’s very little to take issue with here. It would be better to find and date more of these artefacts, preferably ones that hadn’t been sitting in a museum for a century, but still. Not a major issue. In fact, the biggest problem is me. I called this discovery art. Now, I did so because I define art as simply non-utilitarian artefacts and patterns. I like this definition because it is broad, so introduces as few of my personal biases into the subject as possible. However, it is far from universally accepted. In fact, the authors of the paper deliberately shied away from the word because it is so controversial.
But even if you want to be really strict and eliminate the artistic angle of this find, we’re still left with the fact that two different species of human – separated by hundreds of thousands of years and tens of thousand of kilometers – wound up making very similar engravings. And I think that’s ruddy interesting in its own right.
- Joordens et al. (2014). Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving. Nature.
- Silk, J. B., & Boyd, R. (1997). How Humans Evolved.
- Henshilwood, C. S., d’Errico, F., & Watts, I. (2009). Engraved ochres from the middle stone age levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Journal of Human Evolution, 57(1), 27-47.