This etched shell from Java was found at the site where Homo erectus was discovered

500,000-year-old shell engraved by Homo erectus challenges previous beliefs about human ancestors

New research conducted on a mollusk shell found over a century ago on the Indonesian island of Java, has revealed that it contains the oldest engraving ever found and that it was almost certainly etched by a Homo erectus, an early human ancestor that emerged around 1.9 million years ago and became extinct around 150,000 years ago. The discovery challenges preconceived notions about human ancestors, showing that, like Homo sapiens, they produced abstract design or perhaps even an early form of written communication.

The shell was among a collection of freshwater mollusk Pseudodon shells stored in the Naturalis Museum in the Netherlands, which had been gathered in the 1890s at a site known as Trinil on the island of Java, in an area where archaeologists had previously found remains and artifacts belonging to Homo erectus. In 2007, Stephen Munro, an archaeology graduate student, was studying photographs of the shells when he spotted one engraved with zigzag-like lines. Considering the shells had been dated to between 430,000 and 540,000 years old, Munro was astounded to find the etchings on the shell as they are at least 300,000 years old then any other confirmed engravings of this nature.

 “[T]he oldest known engravings date back 100,000 years and were made by modern humans—the only species thought to be capable of making abstract designs,” writes ScienceMag.

Detail of the engraving on a fossilized Pseudodon shell from the Trinil site in Indonesia

Detail of the engraving on a fossilized Pseudodon shell from the Trinil site in Indonesia. (Wim Lustenhouwer/VU University Amsterdam)

Josephine Joordens, a post-doctoral researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and colleagues, have just published a paper on the discovery in the journal Nature, revealing that discovery provides evidence for symbolic activity and shows that “engraving abstract patterns was in the realm of Asian Homo erectus cognition and neuromotor control.” While to many this may seem unsurprising, the finding challenges conventional perspectives about the evolution of human behaviour.

Portrait of a Homo erectus male

Portrait of a Homo erectus male. Source: BigStockPhoto

According to a news release from Leiden University , the engraving “clearly pre-dates the weathering processes on the shell arising from fossilization. The study has excluded the possibility that the pattern could have been caused by animals or by natural weathering processes and shows that the zigzag pattern is the work of Homo erectus.” Francesco d’Errico, an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France known for his studies of similarly engraved objects in Africa and Europe, was able to demonstrate that the marks had been etched in one session, by one person using a sharp tool. Weathering of the engraving also proves that the engraving was not a modern-day addition.

In addition to the engraving, the researchers found that one of the shells, with an extremely sharp edge, had been used as a tool of some sort, while a third of the shells, from a collection of 166, had man-made holes drilled through them, right where a muscle that keeps the shell closed is found. It is believed the holes were made using shark teeth, also found at the site, in order to open the shells so they could be eaten.

One of the shells showing a hole drilled through it where a muscle that keeps the shell closed is found.

One of the shells showing a hole drilled through it where a muscle that keeps the shell closed is found. Credit: Henk Caspers, Naturalis, Leiden, the Netherlands.

While some scientists remain skeptical that such engravings could be made by Homo erectus, the multi-disciplinary and multi-national team of more than twenty scientists that studied the shell, are adamant that the geometric engravings demonstrate that symbolic actions are not solely a human behavior.

"It's a species that before we have thought wasn't capable of making things like this," said Joordens. "... Something that we recognize as typically human was produced by Homo erectus.”

Featured image: This etched shell from Java was found at the site where Homo erectus was discovered. Credit: Wim Lustenhouwer/VU University Amsterdam

By April Holloway


Roberto Peron's picture

This is actually quite fascinating.  Homo erectus was the first to do many things that led up to modern humans such as migrating out of Africa.  This shell shows that the species was not as primitive as we thought in terms of cognition.  Obviously, it is now apparent that H. erectus was more intelligent and creative than once thought.  They created artistic works such as this shell and that shows intelligence and creativity. It also shows that H. erectus had the mental capacity and ability to take something contrived in its mind and make it into reality.  That indicates preconception and foresight which are hardly the typical traits of some archaic ape man or ape woman.  And, again, we modern humans discover that we are not as "special" as we think we are.  Bravo!  

Too bad this amazing discovery was cast into a dusty vault and remained there since the 1890's and if the truth were known whoever put this artifact there likely hoped it would never see the light of day.  I'm surprised they just didn't crush it or something, frankly.  Isn't it strange (not) how the truth just has a way of always coming out no matter how much time it takes?  


Those carvings on the shell were done by science friction.

Our ancestors had been knocking rocks together to make stone tools for more than 2 million years before these scratches were engraved. It seems logical that an aesthetic consciousness would evolve along with tool making ability.

rbflooringinstall's picture

Everyone is still looking at these early forms of humans to be dumb apes compared to us. All of y'all are idiots. The big picture is not that we have gotten more advanced, but that we have gotten less advanced due to a multi hundred thousand year suppression to the knowledge we once had. Stop looking at these ancient humans as inferior, because physically, mentally, and spiritually they surpass what we are now. The difference is now a days, those still sucking on the tit of the illusion use technology as a means to "surpass" early humans, when early humans didn't need technology. All they needed was within themselves, and they were far greater than anyone in our lifetime is going to realize. That is, unless we all realize this on a much larger scale. Then, the information will be plain as day. Its history, parahistory and quantum physics all in one, stupids.

Peace and Love,


Homo erectus model in the picture seems quite realistic, but, most Homo neanderthal models look more "human". Is there any reasonable explanation for that?


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