Artistry on the Half-Shell?

SCIENCE

A zigzag engraving on an ancient mussel’s shell may transform scientific understanding of what has long been considered a defining human capacity: artistic creativity. (Nat Geo News)

Use our resources to better understand “What Makes Us Human.”

Teachers, scroll down for a short list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

The geometric lines engraved into this gorgeous fossilized mussel shell may be the world's oldest piece of artwork yet discovered. Photograph by Wim Lustenhouwer

The geometric lines engraved into this gorgeous fossilized mussel shell may be the world’s oldest piece of artwork yet discovered.
Photograph by Wim Lustenhouwer

Discussion Ideas

  • The Nat Geo News article quotes one paleoanthropologist as saying the discovery of engraved geometric patterns on an ancient shell “raises the big, hairy question of what is ‘modern human behavior’ all over again.” Watch our video “What Makes Us Human,” featuring the famous paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey. What does Dr. Leakey define as “modern human behavior”?
    • The video identifies three key traits that define us as modern humans:
      • bipedalism, or the ability to walk upright on two legs
      • toolmaking
      • language, or the ability to share and communicate ideas

 

  • What species created the geometric design on the mussel shell?
    • The mussel shell’s design was created by the amazing Homo erectus, one of the first of our hominin ancestors to leave Africa. H. erectus lived in Africa and Asia—the shell engraving is actually associated with the very first H. erectus ever discovered and identified, nicknamed “Java Man” for its place of discovery on the Indonesian island of Java. H. erectus was also probably the longest-lived of our ancestor species, surviving about 1.8 million years, from about 1.9 million to just 140,000 years ago. For comparison, our own species (Homo sapiens) has survived for only 196,000 years. Click here to learn more about H. erectus and other hominin history.
"Turkana Boy" is the most complete and well-preserved fossil skeleton of a Homo erectus. Turkana Boy, discovered by paleoanthropologists Kamoya Kimeu and Richard Leakey around Lake Turkana, Kenya, has been dated as around 1.6 million years old. Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic

Was he an artist? “Turkana Boy” is the most complete and well-preserved fossil skeleton of a Homo erectus. Turkana Boy, discovered by paleoanthropologists Kamoya Kimeu and Richard Leakey around Lake Turkana, Kenya, has been dated as around 1.6 million years old. Click here to learn more about ongoing paleontology studies at Lake Turkana.
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic

 

  • Do you think the H. erectus that created the engraved mussel shell displayed “modern human behavior”?
    • Yes! H. erectus walked upright, made tools (scientists speculate that a shark tooth was used as an engraving tool on the mussel shell) and, possibly, art. The intentional creation of art implies the ability to think creatively and symbolically, and displays a “cognitive uniqueness” previously attributed to H. sapiens. The scientific paper says “The manufacture of geometric engravings is generally interpreted as indicative of modern cognition and behaviour.”
    • No! There is no evidence H. erectus had a language, one of the key traits of modern humanity. There isn’t even evidence that the engraved shell is a work of art—the scientific paper “avoids terms like art and symbolism” entirely.

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Nat Geo: World’s Oldest Art Identified in Half-Million-Year-Old Zigzag

Nat Geo: What Makes Us Human?

Nat Geo: Hominin History

(extra credit!) Nature: Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving

3 responses to “Artistry on the Half-Shell?

  1. Pingback: 11 Things We Learned This Week | Nat Geo Education Blog·

  2. Pingback: Scientists Identify Oldest Human Fossil | Nat Geo Education Blog·

  3. Pingback: When Humans Quit Hunting And Gathering, Their Bones Got Wimpy | Nat Geo Education Blog·

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