Way back in the 1890s, a Dutch archaeologist named Eugene Dubois discovered a bunch of stuff on the Indonesian island of Java that established the existence of Homo erectus. Among that stuff were the remains of what they dubbed the Java Man. Most of that stuff was lost during World War II, but a bunch of shells ended up at a natural history museum in the Netherlands. And in 2007, archaeologist Josephine Joordens began studying the shells.
That’s when she and her colleague, Stephen Munro, noticed that lines etched on the shells seemed to actually have some sort of purpose.
“It’s not that we just have this one isolated engraving, but it forms part of a much more extensive and systematic use and exploitation of these freshwater shells,” says Joordens.
Homo erectus predates the Neanderthals, and sediment dating shows the shells are at least 430,000 years old. The question is whether the markings were deliberate. A palaeoanthropologist at the University of Bordeaux tried replicating the marks with several different tools and discovered a shark’s tooth — plenty of which were also found in the Java site — were the best approximation.
According to New Scientist:
The experiments showed that the line is too deep and straight to have been made by an idle hand. Fresh Pseudodon clam shells have a dark brown coat, so the etch would have made a striking white line. All this suggests that it was made deliberately, and yet, unlike tools, the mark has no obvious function.
If the scrapes are actually intentional, and not a result of Homo erectus trying to pry open shellfish, it could mean that some of the earliest hominin may have been far more sophisticated than we give them credit for. Whether the lines were used for communication, decoration, or identification (like writing “ANDY” on the bottom of all your toys), they mean that our earliest ancestors were capable of abstract thought. Aesthetics aren’t necessary for survival, like tools are. So decorating your axes and knives is more advanced than beating a clam against a rock.
There are skeptics to this theory, of course.
“This is a find that is problematical in several ways,” says John Shea, a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York. “It sits there in the archaeological record with nothing like it around for hundreds of thousands of years, and thousands and thousands of miles. 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.” [via NPR]
According to Joordens, the entire excavation site in Java was buried suddenly, possibly the result of a volcanic eruption or a flash flood.
It makes you wonder what other major discoveries are just sitting around in a museum back room, waiting to be noticed.