World’s Oldest Art Identified in Half-Million-Year-Old Zigzag

I’ve noted before that I think capabilities like human language didn’t pop into being 50-75 thousand years ago, but developed over hundreds of thousands of years (if not millions).  Well, it looks like another piece of behavioral modernity may predate anatomically modern humans:
World’s Oldest Art Identified in Half-Million-Year-Old Zigzag.

A zigzag engraving on a mussel’s shell may transform scientific understanding of what has long been considered a defining human capacity: artistic creativity.

Until now, the earliest evidence of geometric art was dated from 70,000 to 100,000 years ago. Scratched into rocks found in South African caves, those engravings signified behavioral modernity: Homo sapiens’ unique cognitive journey into a sophisticated world of abstraction and symbol.

But new 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.”

I’m not entirely sure I would have bought that zigzag pattern as art, but based on the article, it appears to have been a rigorous analysis.

In their Nature paper, Joordens’s group avoids terms like art, symbolism, and modernity. It’s hard to know, she said, the intentions of the engraver. But if the shell was 100,000 years old and found amongHomo sapiens fossils, “it would easily be called symbolic or early art.”

It seems increasingly evident that behavioral modernity didn’t pop into being a few tens of thousands of years go, but developed gradually over hundreds of thousands of years, with the earliest examples going back to Homo erectus, who used several tools, knew how to use fire, might have cooked their food, and was the actual first branch of humanity to migrate out of Africa.  I don’t think we should be too surprised that they might have left simple art behind.

10 thoughts on “World’s Oldest Art Identified in Half-Million-Year-Old Zigzag

  1. There is a difference between “decoration” and “art” but either way both are in the exclusive purview of humans! (And we were just discussing art as a potential litmus test for intelligence! 🙂 )

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  2. Wild, but the article doesn’t specify (unless I missed it?) how they dated the engraving. It’s possible, i’m assuming, its much younger than the shell. There are middens all over Australian beaches, most in use over thousands of years.


    1. Good question. Looking at the actual paper, it sounds like the “morphology” indicates the markings “pre-date shell burial and weathering”. Actually, I’m glad you inspired me to check, because apparently the difficulty of making the grooves and keeping them consistent required substantial deliberate effort, making it more understandable that they call it symbolic or art.


      1. Ah, thanks! That does confirm their “rigorous” work. Great stuff, and another event for me to go observe when I finally get my time machine 🙂 My first port of call though remains 10,000-12,000 BCE, following the patient bastard who made the Thais Bone

        I think, really think, we should change our calendar to have the “modern era” beginning with the Thais Bone, marking the first known practice of science… meaning today is the 4th December 12,014 CE

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        1. In Vernor Vinge’s ‘A Deepness in the Sky’, time in the far future is measured only in seconds. Many of the characters think it’s measured since the first moon landing, but in reality it’s Unix system time (although this is never explicitly stated), starting “about a million seconds” later, or on January 1, 1970.


    2. I enjoyed Deepness. It’s a prequel to Fire, but thousands of years earlier, and takes place within the slow zone (so the characters don’t even know that they’re in a slow zone). The character Pham Nuwen (in his original incarnation) is the chief protagonist. It has something of a Citizen Kane feel to it with lots of flashbacks, but with a captivating story in the frame.

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  3. I don’t know. It kind of looks like anything number of things could have caused that. How many times have I idly picked up a rock or something and scraped it on the ground a few times? Of course, I’m far from being an expert. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wondered the same thing, until John’s question led me to look at the paper. It sounds like the picture is misleading, that when carefully examined, the marks took substantial and deliberate effort to make correctly. Someone went to a lot of trouble to make those geometric marks. And they appear to have been made before the shell was buried over 400,000 years ago. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it.

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