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Oldest Art Ever Etched into Mollusk Shell

Dec 03, 2014 03:55 PM EST
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The oldest art ever found, etched into a mollusk shell 540,000 years ago, hints at the sophistication of early humans, a new study shows.

Described in the journal Nature, the engraving along with a shell tool was discovered at a site in what is now Java, Indonesia. No other art, including cave and rock paintings, date back as far, with this newest find surpassing such previous discoveries by 300,000 years.

Homo erectus, also known as "Upright Man," is often seen as primitive and brutish, but the existence of artwork during their time suggests that these hominids may have been more intelligent than previously thought, capable of cognition and behavior only attributed before to modern humans (Homo sapiens).

"It was probably through the opening of shells with a shark tooth for food that at least one individual made a 'next step' by putting the tool to the shell for scratching lines, instead of, or in addition to, drilling a hole for opening the shell," lead author Josephine Joordens told Discovery News.

"With already a shell in one hand and a sharp tool in the other hand, it is not such a big step to take, but in our eyes now it was a giant leap for mankind, so to speak!" she added.

Joordens and her colleagues at Leiden University discovered this ancient artwork in 166 fossils of freshwater mollusk shells originally found in the 1890s , which have since been stored in the Dubois collection of the Naturalis museum in The Netherlands.

Using both isotopic and luminescence methods, the research team was able to date the shells with engravings carved on them to 540,000 years ago. Based on the neat, zigzag angles of the art and the force needed to etch in the lines, researchers suspect that the prehistoric artist had to put some effort into this "masterpiece," simply using a shark tooth - most likely from a Ganges shark or sand tiger shark known to the region.

"Also, it is important to appreciate that originally the lines must have been white on a black-brown background: visually very striking," Joordens added.

Though the meaning behind the carving remains a mystery, it demonstrates the creative mind of early humans.

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