Two etched bone fragments dating back 100,000 years could be examples of art made by our ancient relatives, the Denisovans, experts suggest.
Unearthed from an archaeological site in north China, the engravings are too finely carved to be a product of butchering and appear to have been deliberately made.
In addition, they have been coated in a red pigment to make them stand out, suggesting purpose and potentially a meaning to the etched, abstract lines.
If indeed made by Denisovans, the findings could prove that these ancient hominins, like the Neanderthals, were capable of art and symbolic thoughts.
At one point, such endeavours had been considered the sole province of modern humans.
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Two etched bone fragments dating back 100,000 years could be examples of art made by our ancient relatives, the Denisovans, experts proposed
The etched bones were found during a dig at the Lingjing archaeological site in China’s Henan Province, where archaic hominins — believed likely to be Denisovans — lived between around 125,000–105,000 years ago.
Like the Neanderthals of Europe and west Asia, Denisovans split off from the hominin lineage that led to modern humans at some point in the last few million years.
Although the Denisovans are believed to have resided across a large portion of east Asia, few artefacts from their time have actually been unearthed in the region.
Analysing the mysterious markings, palaeoanthropologist Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux, France, and colleagues found that the engravings had been carefully drawn with a sharp point.
‘The microscopic analysis of the lines shows that they cannot be interpreted as marks of butchery, the alternative interpretation,’ Dr d’Errico told New Scientist.
Furthermore, the lines on the bones had been rubbed with reddish ochre to improve their prominence.
This pigment is often found on prehistoric ornamentation from Europe and Africa.
‘We need to explain why equidistant lines were deliberately engraved on a semi-fossil bone and covered with red ochre to highlight them,’ added Dr d’Errico.
‘The explanation that would be given by archaeologists if this behaviour was observed at a more recent site would be that this is a sign to which some sort of meaning was attributed.’
If indeed made by Denisovans, the findings could prove that these ancient hominins, like the Neanderthals, were capable of art and symbolic thoughts
It is not certain, however, that it was definitely the Denisovans behind these etchings, given that migrating modern humans reached China around 80,000– 120,000 years ago.
‘It’s difficult to be 100 per cent sure,’ said Dr d’Errico.
‘However, the skull of an archaic hominin was found in the same layers in which the engraved bones were found.’
‘This strongly suggests the authors of the engravings were archaic hominins.’
Unearthed from an archaeological site in north China, the engravings are too finely carved to be a product of butchering and appear to have been deliberately made
‘This finding is really quite groundbreaking,’ University of Victoria, Canada palaeoanthropologist and rock art expert Genevieve von Petzinger — who was not involved in the present study — told New Scientist.
Although the etchings might appear to be simple to us, the concept behind is complex from a cognitive point-of-view — showing the artist had the skills needed to represent information through abstract symbols — she explained.
No other animal — not even chimpanzees — are known to make abstract designs.
‘They are an artificial memory system — a way to retain information over time and space,’ said Ms von Petzinger.
‘This doesn’t happen when you communicate with others by talking. You have to use graphic marks to do it.’
‘To see closely related human species making these graphic marks is absolutely fascinating,’ she concluded.
‘The 21st century is going to be all about being open minded and not being biased towards the idea that our direct ancestors were the only ones making art.’
With their study of these unusual finds complete, the researchers are hoping that similar finds will come to light soon.
‘China and other regions of Eurasia have been under-investigated and it is very probable that in the near future we will have more discoveries,’ Dr d’Errico said.
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Antiquity.
The etched bones were found during a dig at the Lingjing archaeological site in China’s Henan Province, where archaic hominins — believed likely to be Denisovans — lived between around 125,000–105,000 years ago
WHO WERE THE DENISOVANS?
The Denisovans are an extinct species of human that appear to have lived in Siberia and even down as far as southeast Asia.
Although remains of these mysterious early humans have only been discovered at one site – the Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, DNA analysis has shown they were widespread.
DNA from these early humans has been found in the genomes of modern humans over a wide area of Asia, suggesting they once covered a vast range.
DNA analysis of a fragment of pinky finger bone in 2010, (pictured) which belonged to a young girl, revealed the Denisovans were a species related to, but different from, Neanderthals.
They are thought to have been a sister species of the Neanderthals, who lived in western Asia and Europe at around the same time.
The two species appear to have separated from a common ancestor around 200,000 years ago, while they split from the modern human Homo sapien lineage around 600,000 years ago.
Bone and ivory beads found in the Denisova Cave were discovered in the same sediment layers as the Denisovan fossils, leading to suggestions they had sophisticated tools and jewellery.
DNA analysis of a fragment of a fifth digit finger bone in 2010, which belonged to a young girl, revealed they were a species related to, but different from, Neanderthals.
Later genetic studies suggested that the ancient human species split away from the Neanderthals sometime between 470,000 and 190,000 years ago.
Anthropologists have since puzzled over whether the cave had been a temporary shelter for a group of these Denisovans or it had formed a more permanent settlement.
DNA from molar teeth belonging to two other individuals, one adult male and one young female, showed they died in the cave at least 65,000 years earlier.
Other tests have suggested the tooth of the young female could be as old as 170,000 years.
A third molar is thought to have belonged to an adult male who died around 7,500 years before the girl whose pinky was discovered.