Zig-zag on ancient shell may rewrite art and human history

On a prehistoric white shell fossil from the island of Java, tiny zig-zag shaped scratches may etch out the beginning of art history, and rewrite our human history. A study published in Nature this week found that the markings on the shell were between 430,000 and 540,000 years old, making it older than any art created by humans or Neanderthals.

“It rewrites human history,” said Stephen Munro, lead author of the study, in an interview with The Guardian. “This is the first time we have found evidence for Homo erectus behaving this way.”

The shell was gathered as part of a 19th century expedition to Java. In the 1890s, Dutch surgeon Eugene Dubois was hunting down the evolutionary link between humans and great apes. That expedition uncovered human ancestor Homo erectus, then called “Java Man,” who lived between 1.9 million and 143,000 years ago. Dubois also collected freshwater shells from the expedition site, including this one.

Munro, who found the markings, says they are similar to etchings found on ochre in South Africa. But those geometric carvings are approximately 100,000 years ago. Using dating techniques, researchers determined the shell was four times older than the South Africa finds.

The results are difficult to replicate with modern day shells Josephine Joordens, an archaeologist of Leiden University told NPR. When the shells were fresh, they would have had a black exterior, and the carvings would have appeared white. The age and location of the find rules out a later human or Neanderthal as the artist, the study argues.

And M-shaped zig-zags do not match animal markings, Joordens pointed out. Shark teeth found with the shell were likely used to make the carvings. Other shells in the collection had drill marks from the teeth in the corner, which would have opened the shells, the study found. Another shell appears to have been carved into a tool.

Others are not sure the carvings are symbolic art, at least not the art that we associate with humans.

“If this is symbolic behavior by Homo erectus, then it’s basically the only evidence we’ve got for a species that lived for a million-and-a-half years on three continents,” John Shea, a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York, told NPR