New discovery shows Homo erectus to be a bit of a “Renaissance Man.”
In the current issue of the journal Nature, Josephine Joordens, lead author and post-doctoral researcher at Leiden University posits that Neanderthals were a bit smarter than we have given them credit for in the past. Her conclusions were partly based on an engraving found in what is now Java, Indonesia where it shows that “Upright Man” used a shark tooth to make and engraving on a mollusk shell. The “piece” dates back some 540,000 years about 300,000 years earlier than the oldest piece of art on record.
First piece of art: New questions arise
The engraving predates cave and rock paintings by a long ways and begs the question, “Were Neanderthals communicative with one another?”
“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,” 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!”
While the discovery was made by Eugène Dubois in the 1890s, only recently did Joordens find them in the Naturalis museum in Leiden and use the sediment in the shells grooves to date them to over a half-million years ago. She believes that engraving was made with a shell knife rather than a shark tooth given the effort required.
“When we tried to reproduce such a pattern by engraving a fresh shell with a shark tooth, we found it required a lot of strength and skill, especially to make such neat angles where the lines are exactly joined together,” Joordens said. “The maker certainly must have put a lot of effort in it. Also, it is important to appreciate that originally the lines must have been white on a black-brown background: visually very striking.”
While its possible that Homo Erectus obtained the shark teeth through hunting it’s more likely that they were simply found on the beach as sharks lose teeth (shed) quite frequently.
Apparently, Homo Erectus ate quite well, if you like shellfish.
“The good thing about these aquatic resources (shellfish) is that they are abundantly present and easy to collect, and very nutritious, so this would imply that life was not too tough for Homo erectus there,” Joordens says.
Stephen Munro, a curator at the National Museum of Australia and a researcher at Australian National University agrees with Joordens and recently told Discovery news, “They no doubt spent much of their time on land gathering food, and we know they butchered large mammals, but their very heavy bones suggest they never moved far from water, and apparently regularly foraged in the water.”