Trinil Shell Engravings

Oldest known art by Homo erectus
Dating to 540,000-430,000 BC

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Engraved marine shells found at Trinil, Java
Marine shell incised with the earliest known geometric engravings. This early 'art' was produced in Java by Homo erectus. Image by Henk Caspers/Naturalis. (CC BY 3.0)

The World's Oldest Art

The story of the world's earliest prehistoric art begins in 1891, by the Solo River in Java, when the Dutch paleoanthropologist Eugene Dubois (1858-1940) unearthed an ancient hominid (dating to between 1 million and 700,000 BC), which he correctly diagnosed to be a transitional species between apes and humans.

This hominid became known as "Java Man" or Pithecanthropus erectus (later renamed Homo erectus), one of the earliest humans of the Stone Age.

A large amount of bones, fossils and artifacts were found at the site, including a quantity of palm-sized freshwater mussel shells, most of which belonged to the sub-species Pseudodon vondembuschianus trinilensis (now extinct).

A recent examination of the shells by Josephine Joordens, a biologist at Leiden University researching the use of shells by H. erectus, led to the chance discovery that some of them were decorated with abstract signs, making them the oldest example of decorative art known to prehistoric archaeology.

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Shell Engravings

The engravings - likely made with a shark's tooth - were deeply incised in the shell's carapace, which is why they survived over the centuries.

According to team member Francesco d'Errico, an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France, noted for his work on similarly engraved objects in Africa and Europe, the markings had been made in a single session, by one person using a sharp tool.

The incisions took the form of zigzag patterns, with no gaps between turns, showing that their creator had kept the tool firmly on the shell surface as he reversed direction.

How Old Are the Trinil Engraved Shells?

The research team used two dating techniques on preserved grains of sand and clay inside the shells to estimate their age, which was fixed at between 540,000 and 430,000 BC.

This makes them the world's oldest art by a stretch, and sheds an interesting light on human cognition and Stone Age culture in SE Asia, during the Lower Paleolithic.

See, for instance, World's Oldest Art in Indonesia.

More surprising is the fact that the Trinil engravings were made by H. erectus. Up until recently, only H. sapiens was reputed to be capable of making abstract designs.

Note also, that one of the Trinil shells was employed as a tool for cutting or scraping. This is another surprise since H. erectus was thought to have made only simple stone tools.

It's the earliest known example of a shell being employed as raw material for tool manufacture, and it may account for the lack of stone artifacts on Java during the period.

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Are the Trinil Engravings Really Art?

A key issue for some scientists - like Iain Davidson, an archaeologist at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia - is whether the Trinil shell engravings are evidence of rudimentary symbolic behaviour, and therefore art.

Are they merely doodles, for instance, with no thoughtful intent? After all, according to evolutionary theory, doodling must predate symbolism and artistry.

Even team leader Joordens is wary of calling the Trinil markings art. “If you don't know the intention of the person who made it, it's impossible to call it art,” she says.

The difficulty with these objections is that they presuppose distinct categories of markings - doodle, semi-doodle, art, etc, - whereas in practice human evolution continues along a seemless spectrum.

So even though thoughtless doodling may indeed precede intelligent symbolism, what percentage of cognitive thought turns a doodle into an abstract symbol, capable of being judged as art?

It's a tricky calculation to make, especially since discoveries of paleolithic art created by H. erectus, are being made at least every decade.

Surely it's much easier to view the Trinil engravings as a stepping stone on the way to high art - a primitive prototype if you will.

This is surely a more accurate reflection of the behavioral progression needed to move along the artistic spectrum from H. erectus to H. rembrandt and beyond.

According to Zoologist Clive Finlayson, the important issue is not whether the Trinil decorations are doodles or art, but the fact that abstract thinking, once imputed only to H. sapiens, is also present in other ancient humans, such as H. erectus.

To see how these ancient engravings fit into the evolution of Stone Age art, see: Prehistoric art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

World's Oldest Art in Indonesia

For details of the world's oldest figurative cave paintings, see the following:

Collectively, the paintings discovered on Sulawesi Island, and East Kalimantan, Borneo, are the oldest known cave paintings in the world.


(1) Joordens, J., d’Errico, F., Wesselingh, F. et al. Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving. Nature 518, 228–231 (2015).
(2) David Neat's fascinating Wordpress Blog "The Origins of Artistic Expression – Part 2 ‘The making of marks’".

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