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.

Neanderthals ate their veggies

We know this because: Found: Oldest Known Poop From a Human Ancestor | RealClearScience.

Archaeologists in Spain have dug up the oldest known feces from a human ancestor. Their find is detailed inPLoS ONE.

Retrieved from El Salt, an open-air site near Alicante, Spain, the samples date back around 50,000 years, firmly trouncing the previous record of 14,000 years.

Dr. Ainara Sistiaga and her team were able to identify the buried fecal matter by the predominance ofcoprostanol, a compund considered to be a clear biomarker of human excrement.

Besides advancing the quest to extend fart jokes further back into the Paleolithic, the find is important for a simple reason: if you want to know what went in, you have to examine what came out. Fossilized feces are the best clues we have for learning what our ancestors ate. The current discovery presents the first direct evidence that Neanderthals consumed an omnivorous diet of meat and vegetables.

Sometimes I’m glad I’m not an archaeologist, as interesting as the work sounds.  Anyway, this seems to knock down the theories that Neanderthals were primarily meat eaters.  Yet another way that they were more like us than we’ve previously thought.

The Paleo delusion, and a delusion about that delusion

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Image credit: Wikipedia

Today at lunch I listened to the latest Point of Inquiry podcast, which was an interview of Marlene Zuk about her new book on common delusions about evolution and the paleolithic life style.  These misconceptions usually run along the lines of assuming that since we evolved to be hunter gatherers, that we should live like those hunter gathers did.

Aside from holding misconceptions about how those hunter gatherers actually lived, for example believing that they never ate starches, which Zuk discusses isn’t necessarily true, there’s also the normative leap that we’d be better off, perhaps more virtuous in some way, if we lived like they did.  This also, of course, ignores the stark reality of how short and brutal life was in the stone ages.

Zuk’s book sounds fascinating, and I’m seriously considering reading it.  But Zuk mentioned something that I think establishes a different misconception in many people’s minds.  Her remarks indicate that she doesn’t hold this misconception, but I’ve run into a number of people who do, and many of them might not catch the caveats she used in the discussion.

It involves how much we can know or not know about human nature by examining stone age life.  Zuk talks about the fact that evolution didn’t stop when we took up agriculture some 10,000 years ago, mentioning things like the evolution of adult lactose tolerance, blue eyes, and other developments.  And that’s definitely true.

But too many people mention those developments of the last few thousand years, and then fold their arms as though they’ve established that nothing can be learned about human nature by looking at Paleolithic life.  We’ve evolved since then, the reasoning goes, so nothing about stone age life gives us any insight into human nature.  This ignores one simple fact.  The Paleolithic lasted for 2.6 million years, while the period since then has been about 10,000 years, less than 0.4% of the Paleolithic time span.

So, yes we have definitely continued to evolve after the end of the stone ages (which incidentally haven’t yet ended for all of humanity), but to assume those 10,000 years completely obviate the prior evolution across millions of years isn’t logical.  We are not our stone age ancestors, but we’re fooling ourselves if we think our mental instincts, intuitions, and desires still aren’t substantially the ones forged on the African savanna across all those millenia.

We have to use a lot of caution when making conclusions about humanity from what we learn about both modern and ancient hunter gatherer life, but saying it doesn’t tell us anything about the human condition is as big a misconception as the one Zuk is contesting.

The Truth about the Caveman Diet! | Psychology Today

Anthropologists Frederick Coolidge and Thomas Wynn on The Truth about the Caveman Diet! | Psychology Today.

Many readers will have heard of the ‘caveman diet,’ also known as the ‘paleo diet,’ an eating regime based on the premise that we should eat what our ancestors ate over the course of human evolution. More specifically, it suggests that we eat meat, fruit, and nuts and maybe some fish – foods that hunters and gatherers eat – and avoid foods like grains, beans, and potatoes that are the basis of agricultural diets. After all, what could be better for us than to eat what we evolved to eat? So, chuck your food pyramid and dig into that steak! You will be fulfilling your natural evolutionary destiny. Or maybe not.


The caveman diet is a great diet if you want to live to be 30 or 35 years old. That was the adult life expectancy until very, very recently (indeed, it wasn’t until well after the advent of agriculture that life expectancies began to rise – in agricultural communities!).