Graffiti older than Neanderthals

Nature looks over some triangles – not unlike capital letter As – etched into a shell on Java and determines they were carved by Homo erectus, 500,000 years ago:

By 40,000 years ago, and probably much earlier, anatomically modern humans — Homo sapiens — were painting on cave walls in places as far apart as Europe and Indonesia. Simpler ochre engravings found in South Africa date to 100,000 years ago. Earlier this year, researchers reported a ‘hashtag’ engraving in a Gibraltar cave once inhabited by Neanderthals. That was the first evidence for drawing in any extinct species.

But until the discovery of the shell engraving, nothing approximating art has been ascribed to Homo erectus. The species emerged in Africa about 2 million years ago and trekked as far as the Indonesian island of Java, before going extinct around 140,000 years ago. Most palaeoanthropologists consider the species to be the direct ancestor of both humans and Neanderthals.

he engraving might have stayed undiscovered, were it not for Josephine Joordens, a biologist at Leiden University. She had been working a project on how H. erectus used marine resources at Trinil, which is around 80 kilometres inland from the Java Sea. She found only freshwater shells, yet some contained small perforations, a few millimetres wide, that were made with a sharp object. This suggested that someone had used a tool such as a shark tooth to crack open the shell — like using an oyster knife, says Joordens.

A visiting colleague photographed the shells and later noticed a faint zigzag pattern on one. “People never found this engraving because it’s hardly visible,” says Joordens. “It’s only when you have light from a certain angle that it stands out.”

No one can agree if it’s art or not. But they know it’s an intentional marking, it took real effort to make, and it meant something to somebody a long, long time ago.