Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Shellfish Engravings Mark the Rise of Man

Stephen Munro examines casts of Homo erectus.

Stephen Munro examines casts of Homo erectus, which was responsible for the 500,000-year-old engravings. Credit: Phil Dooley

By Stephen Munro

Digital images of ancient shellfish have revealed markings that, according to conventional wisdom, simply shouldn’t have been there.

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While gathering data for my PhD in 2007, I organised a research trip to examine shells from early human fossil sites. My primary interest was whether mussels, clams, oysters and snails could reveal anything about the ecological characteristics of human evolution.

The trip took me to a university in Belgium and museums in Ethiopia, Germany and The Netherlands. It was at Naturalis – the Natural History Museum of the Netherlands – that I first encountered an engraved shell with the potential to reshape the way we view human evolution.

Curiously, I never noticed the engraving at the time. Only when I returned to Australia a month later and began looking through digital images from the trip did I notice a distinct set of lines on one particular shell. My immediate reaction was that this zig-zag pattern was the work of a human hand.

This was astonishing for a number of reasons. First, the shell was half a million years olds – more than 300,000 years older than what was widely considered the next oldest engraving of a similar nature. Second, the site from which the shell derived – Trinil, on the Indonesian island of Java – is synonymous with the species Homo erectus, and markings of this type had never been found in association with this species before.

Homo erectus, an early species of human, first appeared in the fossil record about 1.8 million...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.