Two animal bone fragments decorated with abstract engravings and dating to 105,000-125,000 years ago have been unearthed in China. The etchings on one of these bones are filled with ochre, providing the first-ever evidence that ochred engravings were produced for symbolic purposes by Late Pleistocene hominins in East Asia.
While we currently don’t know for sure, the researchers believe the archaic hominins behind the artwork were Denisovan. The bones were found in Lingjing in northern China’s Henan Province in the same rock layer that two ancient hominin skull fragments were previously found. It’s still not known which archaic human species these bones belong to, but many argue they are Denisovan.
“A growing body of genetic evidence indicates that Denisovans, and to a lesser extent Neanderthals, occupied most of East Asia before the arrival of modern humans,” Professor Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux told IFLScience. “The skull found at Lingjing in the same layer in which the engravings were found is an archaic hominin with no Neanderthal features. The chances are high that he/she is a Denisovan.”
The Denisovans were fellow members of the genus Homo and were only discovered in 2010 from a bone fragment found in Siberia. Only known from a handful of bone and tooth fragments, we still know very little about these mysterious hominins. However, we do know that they mated with our ancestors and signs of this interbreeding can be seen in the people of today. If the artwork was created by this group of hominins, it is the oldest example of Denisovan art to date. Ancient jewelry has previously been attributed to the Denisovans, but it dates back just 40,000 years.
It’s often assumed that Homo sapiens, the species to which we belong, were more cognitively advanced than other archaic humans that lived thousands of years ago. However, if the newly discovered bones were decorated by Denisovans, it would mean that these ancient humans had brains complex enough to use abstract designs to display information. The researchers are certain the etchings were created intentionally, but we don’t know what information they represent.
The team notes that the markings on the bones are not simply the result of butchery, as they have been carefully created on weathered, not fresh, bones and some of the lines were produced using multiple strokes to make them more prominent. Meanwhile, the application of ochre to accentuate the markings also indicates the designs were intentionally created, rather than simply being by-products of cutting meat.
The findings, which are published in Antiquity, are significant because they suggest archaic humans living in China were capable of abstract thought more than 100,000 years ago. Many scientists argue that our species evolved solely in Africa before dispersing between 60,000 and 80,000 years ago. Others, however, believe that numerous groups of Homo sapiens evolved from archaic humans in both Africa and Eurasia.
“These engravings support a scenario in which the production of key cultural innovations is partially or entirely disjointed from the taxonomic affiliation of the populations who produced them,” explained d’Errico. “This scenario entails that there is not a 'before' and an 'after' in the evolution of human cognition but rather multiple steps crossed at different times by populations evolving within different regional trajectories.”