The oldest known shell engraved by an early human was uncovered in a Dutch museum collection, where it has remained unnoticed since the 1930s, and has suggested that early man was more intelligent than previously believed.
The ancient mollusk was originally discovered on the island of Java and dates back to the time of Homo erectus. Following the new discovery, an international team established the date of the shell, arriving at a final result of between 430,000 and 540,000 years old.
The engravings on the mollusk resemble the previously oldest-known etchings, which were created by Neanderthals about 100,000 years ago.
The newly discovered shell has a polished edge and zigzag pattern of engravings that were made from cutting or scraping, which means our ancestors were more intelligent than previously believed, according to Dr. Stephen Munro, a paleoanthropologist at the Australian National University.
Munro added that the discovery, which he made during a study of the collection at the Natural History Museum in Leiden, was a “eureka” moment.
“It rewrites human history,” Munro said. “This is the first time we have found evidence for Homo erectus behaving this way.”
The geometric engravings in the shell are also an indication of early man’s intelligence, since the designs are often a sign of modern cognitive abilities. However, the origins of such behavior are debated.
"Key questions in the debate on the origin of such behavior are whether this innovation is restricted to Homo sapiens and whether it has a uniquely African origin,” said Dr. Josephine Joordens, a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Joordens noted that it’s not possible to assess the function of the engraved shell or its meaning, though it’s likely that it could have been used as a spear-like weapon for hunting or a tool kit for foraging ants.