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Intelligent Homo erectus “Used Shells for Tool Production and Engraving”


I’ve commented in the past on the debate over whether Homo erectus was an unintelligent, bungling prehuman hominid, or an intelligent boat-building seafarer. Now a new paper in Nature, “Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving,” weighs in on the question. According to the abstract:

The manufacture of geometric engravings is generally interpreted as indicative of modern cognition and behaviour. Key questions in the debate on the origin of such behaviour are whether this innovation is restricted to Homo sapiens, and whether it has a uniquely African origin. Here we report on a fossil freshwater shell assemblage from the Hauptknochenschicht (‘main bone layer’) of Trinil (Java, Indonesia), the type locality of Homo erectus discovered by Eugène Dubois in 1891. In the Dubois collection (in the Naturalis museum, Leiden, The Netherlands) we found evidence for freshwater shellfish consumption by hominins, one unambiguous shell tool, and a shell with a geometric engraving.

In fact the researchers discovered this by making a design inference. The shell’s faintly visible “zig zag” pattern (pictured above) triggered the inference to intelligent design. The authors believe the marks could not be the result of natural erosion, and were fashioned by Homo erectus: “Although it is at present not possible to assess the function or meaning of the engraved shell, this discovery suggests that engraving abstract patterns was in the realm of Asian Homo erectus cognition and neuromotor control.”

This could be more evidence that modern humans and what we call Homo erectus ought to be considered members of the same species.

Photo credit: Wim Lustenhouwer, VU University Amsterdam.