Prehistoric Art or Doodle? 110,000-year-old Engraved Bones Create New Mystery

There’s no question that the bones found in eastern China were deliberately decorated, by some archaic human type. But was it art? A form of early human communication? Or a supremely bored Denisovan doodling?

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Different angles of the two engraved animal bones found at Lingjing, China, from  105,000 to 125,000 years ago
Parallel lines were engraved on animal ribs against the grain, using a sharp tool, between 105,000 and 125,000 years agoCredit: F. D'Errico and L. Doyon
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Two fragments of bone found in eastern China that were painstakingly engraved and colored with ocher date to about 105,000 to 125,000 years ago, archaeologists report in Antiquity. And, just possibly, they may have been made by the most enigmatic of archaic humans: the Denisovans.

In fact, the decorated bone fragments are just the latest examples of prehistoric etching. Ancient abstract forms have been found everywhere our ancestors set foot, from Africa and Asia to Europe and Israel: on cave walls, on bones and on shells. What they mean is anyone’s guess. Yet while the definition of “art” is rather loose, this may qualify as an early attempt.

The marks on the bone fragments found in the Lingjing hominin site in Henan Province consist of parallel lines running perpendicular to the grain of the bone. They were not made accidentally, unwittingly or incidentally through butchery. They did not result from dragging an animal corpse along the cave floor, or curing it. Microscopic analysis concluded that the lines were carefully cut into weathered broken bones, not made of fresh animal remains, write Zhanyang Li of Shandong University and colleagues.

Microscopic photographs of the engravings show criss-crossing.Credit: F. D'Errico and L. Doyon
Well-preserved cut marks on animal bone found at Lingjing, ChinaCredit: F. D'Errico and L. Doyon

So somebody around 115,000 years ago, give or take 10,000 years, purposefully took broken bones, possibly left over from a long-forgotten meal, and etched parallel lines on them using sharp stone tools.

The archaeologists could even conclude that, in one case, the prehistoric artisan had taken particular care when making the first five parallel lines and then repeated the subsequent strokes, presumably to deepen them and enhance their visibility.

The bone fragments were identified as being from ribs, though of which animal remains unclear.

Nor do we know who did it. The archaeologists found skull pieces from two individuals in the same archaeological layer, but only found the crania, no facial bones or jaws. Yet the thickness and shape of the rounded skull tops does tell a tale, and it’s a confusing one. If anything, they indicate a morphological melange of origins. In some features the crania are like Neanderthals, in others like early humans, and in others like more developed humans, a different team headed by Zhan-Yang Li of the Chinese Academy of Sciences reported in 2017.

Showing a tracing of the engravings on the animal bones found at Lingjing, ChinaCredit: F. D'Errico and L. Doyon

Maybe, just maybe, these crania are from the mysterious Denisovans, sister species to Neanderthals, and they are the ones that carved the bones.

Enter the Denisovans

Human evolution was clearly not a linear progression from australopithecine to auntie. The crania found in Lingjing are a great example of muddled origins. It is now dogma that early humans merrily mated with other types of hominins, including Neanderthals and Denisovans, which also mixed with each other.

Child looking at reconstruction of a Neanderthal, Human Evolution Museum, Germany Credit: Martin Meissner,AP

Homo sapiens and ancestral Neanderthals split from their common ancestor around 700,000 years ago, and later the ancestral Neanderthal line split into more advanced Neanderthals in the West and Denisovans in the East. The sister species overlapped, as evinced by the discovery of a half-Neanderthal half-Denisovan hybrid girl in Denisova Cave, southern Siberia.

The Lingjing crania were too modern for an archaic species such as Homo erectus or heidelbergensis, but they also weren’t classic European Neanderthal, clarifies Prof. Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bergen, Norway, and a co-author on the paper. Their Neanderthal features include a huge brain, prominent brow ridges and Neanderthal-type inner ear bones. Which means nothing. It could have been an eastern variant of Neanderthal; or the product of early-exit Homo sapiens mating with the locals.

Denisovan jaw from TibetCredit: Qiu Menghan/Dongju Zhang/Lanzhou University via AP

Or: “Considering what we know about the geographic distribution of Denisovans, it makes sense to think they were Denisovan,” d’Errico tells Haaretz — qualifying that there is no genetic evidence supporting that hypothesis at this time (DNA couldn’t be extracted from the skulls).

Paleontology is also starting to support genetic evidence that the Denisovans once ranged all over Asia. Until recently, Denisovan remains had been found in exactly one spot: Denisova Cave in Siberia. But this year, a fossilized jawbone found on the Tibetan Plateau turned out to be Denisovan.

In a sense, the discovery of the Tibetan mandible had been forecast, because the highest concentration of Denisovan genes in modern people is in Oceania, which is a long way from Siberia. It is thought the Denisovans are responsible for the Papua New Guineans’ subtle sense of smell and the high-altitude adaption in Tibetans. Natives of the Americas also have trace Denisovan genetic signals because of their Asian origin.

So, could the Denisovans have been etching? Maybe. So far, there are no convincing examples of Neanderthal art.

But is it art?

Whoever made the Lingjing bone etchings, they meant to do it. But if this is art, it isn’t the earliest. That prize may go to a 540,000-year-old perforated mussel shell found in Indonesia sporting engraved zigzag lines, made by a Homo erectus. Reporting on that discovery in 2014, Leiden University biologist Josephine Joordens said that they “looked at all possibilities, but in the end we are really certain that this must have been made by an agent who did a very deliberate action with a very sharp implement.” That still doesn't make it "art."

Altogether, more than 50 artifacts that were engraved, or may have been engraved, have been found that are older than 60,000 years — which is the earliest date for cave art.

Superimposed depictions of horses on cave walls are unarguably art. The meaning of abstract lines drawn or carved (“hashtags”) is debatable. Could it have been art? Did it have to be? Did it reflect a spiritual expression of some kind? Could it have been the result of archaic boredom?

“I don’t know — it’s a real problem,” says Prof. Anna Belfer-Cohen, head of the archaeology institute at Hebrew University and an expert on early human expression (she was not involved in this study). Much more complex examples of ancient engravings exist, and while it is a “very beautiful and human behavior,” that’s about all we can say. Everybody wonders what they mean — “art, message, doodling out of boredom. God knows,” Belfer-Cohen sums up.

“What we can say is that the lines were done deliberately, with the right tool, that they are not butchery marks and are by a person who has the knowledge to produce parallel lines,” says d’Errico. “Art is an ambiguous term. Let’s say that a meaning may have been attributed to this pattern.”

They didn’t find any other signs of symbolic thinking in the hominins who made these at the site, he tells Haaretz (“not in those layers”).

However, in the authors’ view, the use of ocher demonstrates deliberate symbolic purpose. Asked what that means, d’Errico explains: “I mean that the behavior is consistent with the will of creating a visually recognizable pattern to which a meaning can be attached. This implies that the engraved pattern was probably a sign.”

One can only hope that the fellow hominins the artist was signaling understood him better than we do.