The news is a bit old, but is no less relevant and amazing: for the first time in history, scientists have discovered evidence that our pre-human ancestors had some concept of art — something previously believed to be intrinsic to Homo sapiens.
As National Geographic reports:
[N]ew analysis of an engraving excavated from a riverbank in Indonesia suggests that it’s at least 430,000 years old—and that it wasn’t made by humans, scientists announced Wednesday. At least it wasn’t made by humans as most people think of them, meaning Homo sapiens.
Rather, the earliest artist appears to have been one of our ancestors, Homo erectus. Hairy and beetle-browed, H. erectus was never before thought to have such talents.
“The origin of such cognition, such abilities,” said archaeologist Josephine Joordens, “is much further back in time than we thought.”
As it turns out, the source of this art — a geometric engraving on mussel shells — had been unearthed over a century ago by a Dutch paleoanthropologist named Eugène Dubois. They were found among the remains of what we now know as Homo erectus, the first hominids of the genus Homo to leave Africa, as well as the foundings members of the family from which modern humans emerged.
It was only seven years ago that Joordens and an Australian anthropologist, Steven Munro, noticed this unusual and clearly deliberate zigzag pattern. They and their team of nearly two dozen researches meticulously determined the shell to be between 430,000 and 540,000 years-old — far earlier than the previously oldest example of art among humans — and were also careful to rule out alternative explanations; a paleoanthropologist from the esteemed Smithsonian Institution also confirmed that the methodology was sound.
Needless to say, the implications this has for human evolution is, to quote Joordens, profound:
It’s generally thought that humans became anatomically and behaviorally modern between 100,00 and 200,000 years ago, in a relatively quick stroke of evolutionary inspiration.
In subsequent millennia would come cave paintings and sculpted figures, the full flowering of an ostensible cognitive uniqueness reflected in our very name: H. sapiens, or “wise man.” Neanderthals may also have possessed a rich symbolic culture, but theirs was relatively recent, and they are arguably not so evolutionarily distinct from modern humans as H. erectus.
A geometric artmaking H. erectus challenges the narrative of dramatic human exceptionality. “What we think of as typically modern human behavior didn’t suddenly arise, in sparklike fashion,” Joordens said. “Something like that seems to have been in place much earlier.” (Learn more about H. erectus smarts in “Homo Erectus Invented “Modern” Living?”)
Like goods scientists, Joordens and her group are careful with drawing their conclusions too definitively; they avoid terms like “art”, “symbolism”, and “modernity”, even if those things can be reasonably gleaned from this finding. Indeed, despite the caution, they admit that had a similar finding be found among Homo sapiens, “it would easily be called symbolic or early art” (as has been the case).
“This raises the big, hairy question of what is ‘modern human behavior’ all over again,” said paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman of Pennsylvania State University.
Indeed, the very notion of modern humans as being cognitively unique is now “up for reconsideration,” said Joordens.
That will likely be argued for years to come. In the meantime, the researchers plan to further study the collection and revisit the excavation site.
“We’re certain we haven’t found everything yet,” Joordens said.
Clearly, the question of what it is to be human will remain an ever-more dynamic and complex one. It may never have a true answer given the larger philosophical and religious variables involved, but it is great to see more evidence to expand our discussion.