Patterns on a shellfish rewrite human history

The freshwater mussel shell with the faint zigzag pattern on its surface - evidence that Homo erectus used a tool and acted creatively.
Stephen Munro

What is believed to be the oldest evidence of decorative marks made by our human ancestors has been found by an Australian archeologist rummaging through old shell specimens.

The inscribed shell has been dated to at least 430,000 years. It was initially found alongside "Java Man" who was excavated on the banks of the Solo River in Java, Indonesia by physician Eugene Dubois in the 1890s.

Dubois claimed Java Man's fossilised bones, which were then dated at between 700,000 and a million years old, were evidence of a transitional species, between the primates and homo sapiens. He was proved right. The species was named Homo erectus. Bones from this species have since been found in Africa and elsewhere in Asia.

At the same site Dubois also collected 11 species of freshwater shells. Most belonged to a now extinct mussel species. When Australian archeologist Stephen Munro from the Australian National University visited Leiden University in the Netherlands recently and examined the shells he noticed a faint zigzag pattern on one of them, which had been hitherto undetected.

"It was a eureka moment," said Munro. "I could see immediately that they were man-made engravings." Another of the shells had been modified and sharpened, so it could have been used as a knife.

To make sure that the engravings were man-made, Munro and Dutch marine biologist and archeologist Josephine Joordens examined modern mussels, but could find no natural markings resembling a zigzag pattern. Munro concluded that Homo erectus had carved the pattern.

The findings have been reported in Nature. The zigzag pattern on the shells predate other markings made by modern humans and Neanderthals by about 300,000 years.

"It rewrites human history," said Munro. "This is the first time we have found evidence for Homo erectus behaving this way."

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