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.