Archeologists in China have discovered two engraved bones with ochre incisions in a layer dating back between 105,000 and 125,000 years ago, which they say is the earliest evidence of human populations using ochre — an earthy pigment — for symbolic purposes. The discovery of abstract engravings is considered an indicator of modern human cognition which researchers say led to the development of symbols, drawings, art and language.
“This discovery indicates that the production of abstract motifs, possibly used for symbolic purposes, was an integral part of the cultures developed by human populations who lived in China contemporary to the emergence of our species, Homo sapiens, in Africa,” co-author Luc Doyon, postdoctoral fellow at Shandong University’s Institute of Cultural Heritage told The Indian Express.
The findings published this week in the peer-reviewed Antiquity journal is a result of a collaboration between researchers from China, France and Norway led by Li Zhanyang from Shandong University and Francesco d’Errico from Universite de Bordeaux. The bones were discovered at the Lingjing site in Xuchang in central China’s Henan province, which has been a site of excavation yearly from 2005 to 2018 by a team led by Li. Since 2005, the team has found 45 fragments of human cranial fossils at the site which has since been pieced together and named the ‘Xuchang Man’.
In the state-run China Daily, Li said one of the bones discovered there had seven engraved lines with the presence of a red residue. “Based on experimental reproduction and subsequent microscopic analysis, the researchers found the sequential marks were made with different tools and motions. But they have not been able to decipher the meaning of the marks,” the report stated.
The paper ‘Engraved bones from the archaic hominin site of Lingjing, Henan Province’ points out that the population which inhabited the region saw bone as a medium on which they could permanently record sequential markings and used ochre as a way of highlighting them. Doyon told The Indian Express that amongst the key issues in research on cultural evolution is when, where and why prehistoric populations ceased to consider bone as a by-product of butchery and carcass processing activities.
“Over the last two years, I had the opportunity to be part of a team that documented the discovery of the oldest known bone tools in China, which also were discovered at Lingjing. They consists of bone and antler fragments used to make and resharpen stone tools. The discovery of the engravings now indicates that the people living at this site ~115,000 years ago not only understood the utility of bone for the manufacture of stone tools but considered this raw material as a good medium to permanently record abstract patterns,” he said.
Further, he pointed out that modern human cognition refers to the capacity of making complex tools and producing different art forms such as painting, engraving and music. “It is clear that members of our species, Homo sapiens, possess these abilities. However, opinions still differ amongst archaeologists between those who think archaic hominin cognition is comparable to that of Homo sapiens and those who don’t,” he said. Archaic hominins refer to the now extinct human species that lived prior and during the evolution of Homo sapiens in Africa.