Science - December 11, 2014

Wallinga finds proof of engraving by homo erectus

Roelof Kleis

Homo erectus was capable of engraving! The engraved shell in the collection of Naturalis natural history museum made the global headlines last week.

A nice Dutch  archaeological success. However, less attention was paid to what was possibly the most crucial part of the study: the dating of the shell. How do we know that this  shell is at least 430,000 years old?  That is the work of Wageningen  researchers led by Professor Jakob  Wallinga. Wallinga heads the  Dutch Centre for Luminescence,  based in Atlas, which he set up. He  has been living with the secret of  homo erectus for years. The zigzag  scratches on the shell were discovered  seven years ago by an Australian  researcher. The shell is part of  the Dubois collection, named after  the Dutch paleontologist Eugene  Dubois who discovered homo  erectus.  Dubois began digging up the  shells in 1890 in the bed of the Javan  River Solo, the place where he  also found the remains of the homo  erectus. Wallinga got involved  in this research five years ago. ‘It  was already clear then how important  those scratches could be and  how crucial the dating would be.’ 



Luminescence makes use of a signal  which builds up in buried  sand grains under the influence of  natural radioactivity in the soil.  Wallinga can release that signal,  measure it and determine how  much time has gone by since the  sand was hidden from daylight.  Light destroys the signal. The  shells have been in Naturalis for  over 100 years, but luminescence  can still be used. To do so the dating  team used pieces of coagulated  sediment inside the shell. They  scraped away the outer layer and  could access the material with the  intact signal to decode the ‘sand  memory’. The result is spectacular.  The scratches must be at least  430,000 years old. With another  technique, the upper limit was set  at 540,000 years. The oldest  known engravings until now were  those of homo sapiens in Africa,  which dated back to about 100,000  years ago.  Wallinga is proud of having  worked on such an archaeological  breakthrough. ‘This is a breakthrough  in how we look at the development  of humans and what  steps were taken when.’ The researchers  are keen to continue investigations.  ‘We would love to go  to the excavation site. There is  much more material there. The  aim is get that organized.’   

resource_wageningenur_nl_forum_reactions_wrapper for object 43 of type wm_language nl_gx_webmanager_cms_core_implementation_languageimpl 3

  • Patrick Jansen

    @R - Dit punt is ook besproken in de Redactieraad van Resource. Heb begrepen dat bronnen standaard zullen gaan worden vermeld onder wetenschapsartikelen. Helemaal goed!

    • Anne

      Wauw, goed bezig daar bij Resource! :)

  • Albert Sikkema

    Goed punt. Hier is de link naar het wetenschappelijke artikel:

    • R

      Tof! Bedankt!

  • R

    Wat ik nou soms zo jammer vind van de Resource is het gebrek aan links naar de eigenlijke papers of dergelijke bronnen. Dan lees je hier een leuk verhaaltje zoals hierboven waar je dan eigenljk net iets meer van wilt weten, maar dan moet je zelf eigenlijk best wat moeite doen om het daadwerkelijk te vinden. En dan weet je nog niet altijd of je de juiste bron hebt.

    Overigens niet alleen bij dit artikel, het gebeurt vaker bij de 'wetenschapscategorie'.

    Volgens mij is het een kleine moeite voor de auteur van de Resource artikels om dit te implementeren. Dus hopelijk kan er iets aan gedaan worden :)