First pre-human art found

Scientists looking over a museum collection stumbled across the first ever piece of art made by a pre-human species.


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Art and humans go hand in hand. In fact, they’re so intertwined researchers have tried to use art as a way to identify the intellectual emergence of our species. Whilst other members of the human family have produced objects that could be labelled “art” their masterpieces are often very circumstantial, debatable or isolated. Homo sapiens are the only true artists, and true art is the sign of Homo sapiens! At least, until yesterday. Because yesterday researchers announced the first discovery of clear, pre-human art.

This amazing new discovery comes not from an archaeological excavation, but the backrooms of a museum. Scientists were re-examining discoveries from Java, Indonesia – found by Dubois in the 1890s – when they found an odd shell. For those of you paying attention that’s the same Dubois who discovered “Java man” and Homo erectus. The shell showed signs of having been opened and the contents eaten by early humans, which wasn’t particularly odd. It also had a sharpened edge, indicating it had been used as a cutting tool after. Again, nothing odd about that. No, what makes this shell worth talking about is the zig-zag engraving1.

Dubois' shell, including close-ups of the engravings

Dubois’ shell, including close-ups of the engravings

Actually, what makes it really special is the age of it (and its engraving). Although Dubois couldn’t accurately date it, later luminescence dating of sediment clinging to the shell revealed it was 400,000 – 500,000 years old. That makes this artwork more than twice as old as our species and almost 4 times the age of the previous earliest art1.

This places it at a time when the shell’s home was inhabited by Dubois’ Homo erectus1. This human ancestor is notable for being one of the first species to begin evolving an larger brain; although they still couldn’t hold a candle to us2. Or could they? Maybe we’ll have to re-evaluate the intellectual capabilities of our ancestors in light of this discovery. Or maybe just abandon all attempts of trying to link art to intelligence.

To be fair to ol’ Homo erectus, this isn’t the first time someone has tried to argue they had artistic ability. They’re also famous for producing symmetrical, bifacial tools. Some have argued that this symmetry didn’t make the tools any better. Thus, it was done for aesthetic, perhaps symbolic reasons. Maybe to show off how good at tool making you were and thus how great a mate you’d be. However, this argument has yet to gain widespread acceptance. This new engraving is a much more definite example of Homo erectus making art.

However, I don’t think the most interesting thing about this discovery is who made it, how smart they were or how old the art is. Rather, what I think is amazing is just how similar this engraving is to some of the first art made by Homo sapiens. Roll the clock forwards to a mere 100,000 years ago and we find the first modern humans making some of the first art3. And we’re also making engravings. Specifically, zig-zag engravings. Kinda like those just discovered. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Maybe zig-zags are just easy to make. Or maybe it’s because we are so similar, cognitively speaking, to these ancient humans that the same sorts of shapes and patterns are visually appealing to the both of us. I think that’s a fascinating possibility.

engraved-ochre-from-blombos-cave-south-africa-c-75000-b-c-e-4in-long1

Now, at this point I might normally offer a critique of the research; but there’s very little to take issue with here. It would be better to find and date more of these artefacts, preferably ones that hadn’t been sitting in a museum for a century, but still. Not a major issue. In fact, the biggest problem is me. I called this discovery art. Now, I did so because I define art as simply non-utilitarian artefacts and patterns. I like this definition because it is broad, so introduces as few of my personal biases into the subject as possible. However, it is far from universally accepted. In fact, the authors of the paper deliberately shied away from the word because it is so controversial.

But even if you want to be really strict and eliminate the artistic angle of this find, we’re still left with the fact that two different species of human – separated by hundreds of thousands of years and tens of thousand of kilometers – wound up making very similar engravings. And I think that’s ruddy interesting in its own right.

References 

  1. Joordens et al. (2014). Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving. Nature.
  2. Silk, J. B., & Boyd, R. (1997). How Humans Evolved.
  3. Henshilwood, C. S., d’Errico, F., & Watts, I. (2009). Engraved ochres from the middle stone age levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Journal of Human Evolution, 57(1), 27-47.

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10 thoughts on “First pre-human art found”

  1. Wyrd Smythe says:

    Would you differentiate between “art” and “decoration” or consider them both “art”?

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Personally I’d label them both art, although my view is far from universally accepted. Within art there are no doubt sub categories; mayve decoration is kne of them. Researchers often differentiate between portable and non-portable art, for example

      1. Wyrd Smythe says:

        So makeup would be a kind of art? Or hanging a fish or sword over the fireplace? I’ve always considered decoration and art as distinct, but I’m not sure I can express exactly why. (So much depends on how one defines “art” really.)

        1. Adam Benton says:

          I think decoration might be when the something is chosen for its aethetics more than anything. Art can often convey a lot of information, make a point, label something. But if its just to look pretty, its decoration.

  2. Ashley Haworth-roberts says:

    I also caught sight of this by a YEC (not read):
    http://crev.info/2014/12/homo-erectus-joins-art-society/

    1. Adam Benton says:

      I’m not sure where to start with that. On the one hand – as i explain in my post – some people had been anticipiating this sort of discovery for a while so its not quite the surprise they make it out to be (the media does love the baffled scientists plotline after all). Theres also the fact the research which doesnt have shocking conclusions doesnt tend to be reported. But trust me, theres a lot of it

  3. brianrudze says:

    I think your ‘art’ definition is right on. After all, the same mentality that disagrees with your flexible definition is the one that has insisted over the years that only ‘our’ species could be capable of art, tool use, speech, thinking, feeling, etc., etc.

  4. Woody says:

    Decoration could easily include an artistic edge as far back in our history as one wants to go. Because a decoration often had a symbolic, intended purpose, like skulls set into walls, the old protection from evil spirits, which may to an extent have been replaced by Sun symbols like swastikas in ancient barbarian cultures (and Hindu temples).
    Interesting post.

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