THE artist – if she or he can be called that – was right-handed and used a shark’s tooth. They had a remarkably steady hand and a strong arm. Half a million years ago, on the banks of a calm river in central Java, they scored a deep zigzag into a clam shell.
We will never know what was going on inside its maker’s head, but the tidy, purposeful line (pictured above right) has opened a new window into the origins of our modern creative mind.
It was found etched into the shell of a fossilised freshwater clam, and is around half a million years old – making the line by far the oldest engraving ever found. The date also means it was made two to three hundred thousand years before our own species evolved, by a more ancient hominin, Homo erectus.
“It is a fascinating discovery,” says Colin Renfrew, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge. “The earliest abstract decoration in the world is really big news.”
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They’re not certain Homo Erectus could speak, but they believe they might have at a rate of about 12 words a minute, based on the shape of their pharynx, chest and neck. So to me this was a small step into the next phase (after speaking) which says “I exist”. Or, perhaps even more exciting: “I existed”. Human life is so short, yet we have learned so much from accumulating knowledge precisely this way. It’s humbling and amazing, even hopeful.