Site of Trinil, Java, Indonesia

Site of Trinil, Java, Indonesia

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Trinil is a palaeoanthropological site on the banks of the Bengawan Solo River in Ngawi Regency, East Java Province, Indonesia. It was at this site in 1891 that the Dutch anatomist Eugène Dubois discovered the first early hominin remains to be found outside of Europe: the famous "Java Man" (Homo erectus erectus) specimen. [2] [3] [4]

  1. ^ Joordens, Josephine C. A. d’Errico, Francesco Wesselingh, Frank P. Munro, Stephen de Vos, John Wallinga, Jakob Ankjærgaard, Christina Reimann, Tony Wijbrans, Jan R. Kuiper, Klaudia F. Mücher, Herman J. (2015). "Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving". Nature. 518 (7538): 228–231. doi:10.1038/nature13962. ISSN1476-4687.
  2. ^ [full citation needed]
  3. ^
  4. Turner W (April 1895). "On M. Dubois' Description of Remains recently found in Java, named by him Pithecanthropus erectus: With Remarks on so-called Transitional Forms between Apes and Man". Journal of Anatomy and Physiology. 29 (Pt 3): 424–45. PMC1328414 . PMID17232143.
  5. ^
  6. Hepburn D (October 1896). "The Trinil Femur (Pithecanthropus erectus), contrasted with the Femora of Various Savage and Civilised Races". Journal of Anatomy and Physiology. 31 (Pt 1): 1–17. PMC1327807 . PMID17232222.
  • Hooijer, Dirk A. Kurtén, Björn (1984). "Trinil and Kedungbrubus: the Pithecanthropus-bearing fossil faunas of Java and their relative age". Annales Zoologici Fennici. 21 (2): 135–41. JSTOR23734854.
  • Jacob, Teuku (1973). "Palaeoanthropological discoveries in Indonesia with special reference to the finds of the last two decades". Journal of Human Evolution. 2 (6): 473–8, IN5–IN11, 479–85. doi:10.1016/0047-2484(73)90125-5.

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Trinil Homo erectus

Trinil is the type site of Pithecanthropus erectus (now Homo erectus) and the best known of all of the Indonesian hominin localities. Between 1891-1894 the Dutch anatomist Eugene Dubois excavated on the banks of the Solo River, close to the village of Trinil. After Dubois returned to the Netherlands, the excavation’s were continued by his assistants until 1900. Hundreds of vertebrate fossils were recovered and these were housed in the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie, Leiden, the Netherlands, and are known as the Trinil H.K. Fauna. Recent palaeoenvironmental reconstruction from these fauna concluded that the site contained a mix of open savannah, densely covered river valley and upland forest species. As the river deposits may contain water-born bones from a wide catchment, it is not certain to what extent the environmental reconstruction pertains to the area adjacent to where the hominin fossils were excavated.

The excavation site was an exposure (eroded section) of river formed deposits on the bank of the Solo River and appears to be derived from the Trinil beds of the Bapang Formation. Initially dated by K/Ar to 500 ka, the hominin deposits are now thought to be in the range of 700 ka – 1 Ma. A third molar (Trinil 1) and calotte (Trinil 2) were discovered in 1891, and a femur (Trinil 3) in 1892. Later two isolated teeth and femur shaft fragments were also found (Trinil 4-9). Based on estimated brain size and overall shape Dubois recognised the calotte as being from a hominin, and he thought that the femur was probably associated with it. Based on the similarities between the Trinil femur, and those of modern humans, Dubois was certain that the hominin was a habitual biped, giving it the name Pithecanthropus erectus. Dubois published a brief description of the calotte in 1894 and the femur in 1893. There have always been doubts about the contemporaneity of the femur and skull cap (Day and Molleson, 1973). Kennedy’s (1983) examination of femur anatomy in H. erectus, emphasised the similarity between the modern human femora and Trinil 3. Although Trinil 2 is relatively small (adult female?), statistical and morphological comparisons emphasise similarities with the other Indonesian examples of Homo erectus (Santa Luca, 1980 Rightmire, 1990 Anton, 2003)

500,000-Year-Old Homo erectus Engraving Discovered

A multinational group of scientists led by Prof Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands has discovered the earliest known engraving on a fossilized shell from the famous Homo erectus site of Trinil, on the Indonesian island of Java.

Pseudodon shell with the engraving made by Homo erectus. Image credit: Wim Lustenhouwer / VU University Amsterdam.

While cataloging hundreds of freshwater mussel shells collected at the end of the 19th century by the Dutch anatomist and geologist Eugene Dubois – the discoverer of Java man, the first known fossil of Homo erectus – on the banks of the Bengawan Solo river in East Java, Prof Roebroeks and his colleagues noticed that one of the specimens was engraved.

“It was a Eureka moment. I could see immediately that they were man-made engravings. There was no other explanation,” said team member Dr Stephen Munro from the Australian National University and the National Museum of Australia.

“It’s fantastic that this engraved shell has been discovered in a museum collection where it has been held for more than a hundred years,” said Prof Roebroeks, who is the senior author of the paper published in the journal Nature.

Following the discovery, the scientists worked to establish the exact date of the shell, using two different methods to arrive at the final result of between 430,000 and 540,000 years old.

The geometric pattern on Pseudodon shell, from left to right, top to bottom: overview (scale bar – 1 cm) schematic representation detail of main engraving area (scale bar – 1 cm) detail of the engraving (scale bar – 1 mm). Image credit: Josephine C. A. Joordens et al.

“This is the first time we have found evidence for Homo erectus (a hominin species ancestral to modern humans, dating from approximately 1.89 million years ago to 143,000 years ago) behaving this way. It rewrites human history,” Dr Munro said.

The Homo erectus engraving resembles the previously oldest-known engravings, which are associated with either anatomically modern Homo sapiens or Neanderthals from around 100,000 years ago.

“Until this discovery, it was assumed that comparable engravings were only made by Homo sapiens in Africa, starting about 100,000 years ago,” said Dr José Joordens of Leiden University, a team member and the lead author of the paper.

The early date and the location of the discovery on Java discount the possibility that the engraving could have been the work of Neanderthals or modern humans.

Detail of the engraving. Image credit: Wim Lustenhouwer / VU University Amsterdam.

“It puts these large bivalve shells and the tools used to engrave them, into the hands of Homo erectus, and will change the way we think about this early human species,” Dr Munro said.

“The precision with which these early humans worked indicates great dexterity and detailed knowledge of mollusk anatomy,” said team member Dr Frank Wesselingh of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands.

It is unclear whether the pattern was intended as art or served some practical purpose.

“At the moment we have no clue about the meaning or purpose of this engraving,” Prof Roebroeks said.

The scientists also found that Homo erectus opened the shells by drilling a hole through the shell with a shark’s tooth, exactly at the point where the muscle is attached. Damaging muscles this way causes the valves of the shell to open, so that the contents can be eaten.

“It’s evidence that Homo erectus exploited these aquatic food resources, and fits with other evidence that they probably foraged in and around water,” Dr Munro said.

Josephine C. A. Joordens et al. Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving. Nature, published online December 3, 2014 doi: 10.1038/nature13962

Zigzags on a Shell From Java Are the Oldest Human Engravings

On the banks of the Solo River in Java, Indonesia, 19th-century physician Eugene Dubois uncovered an astounding fossil find: the bones of what appeared to be an ancient human, surrounded by animal remains and shells. Excavated in the 1890s, the site gained fame as the home of “Java Man,” better known today as Homo erectus.

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Dated to between a million and 700,000 years old, the bones immediately provoked controversy, because Dubois claimed they showed evidence of a transitional species between apes and humans. It turns out he was right—Homo erectus fossils have since been found in Africa and elsewhere in Asia, and it is possible the species is a direct ancestor of our own. But it’s the palm-sized shells found alongside the Java remains that are raising big questions today. An examination of the shells published in Nature suggests that Homo erectus may have used the shells for tools and decorated some of them with geometric engravings. At around half a million years old, the shells represent the earliest evidence of such decorative marks and also the first known use of shells to make tools.

Dubois collected 11 species of freshwater shells at the site, called Trinil. Most of them belong to the sub-species Pseudodon vondembuschianus trinilensis, a now extinct freshwater mussel he described in 1908. Initially scientists thought the mollusks had naturally clustered at the site, perhaps driven by water currents. Even without a connection to the human fossil, the cache provided a nice census of ancient freshwater shell life, coming from at least 166 Pseudodon individuals.

That’s what first attracted Josephine Joordens, a marine biologist and archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands. A few years ago, Stephen Munro, an archaeologist at Australian National University and a study co-author, happened to briefly look through the Dubois shell collection and took a few photos. The images showed markings on the shells, at first invisible to the naked eye. “It’s strange to see a zigzag pattern on such old fossil shells,” recalls Joordens.

Viewed up close, one fossil Pseudodon shell from Java shows evidence of engraving. (Wim Lustenhouwer, VU University Amsterdam )

Intrigued, the researchers compared the Dubois shells to how living mollusks were arranged and buried in the wild. The patterns didn’t match up. Most of the shells also had weird holes corresponding to the where the organism’s adductor muscle and ligament, used to open and close the shell, would have been attached. Presumably, someone or something was trying to pry open the shell and remove the gooey mussel. Back then, shellfish eaters such as otters, rats and monkeys also lived on Java. Figuring out what could have poked holes in the shells required some experimentation.

With no modern specimen to draw from, the team selected a living mollusk with the closest characteristics to the ancient Pseudodons, a freshwater mussel called Potamida littoralis. The group tried to open the shells with the most likely pointy object at hand on Java, a shark tooth. Only piercing the muscle popped the shells open without breaking them. That requires a certain degree of dexterity and knowhow, so Homo erectus became the most likely culprit.

See the hole on the inside of this fossil Pseudodon shell? Homo erectus likely bored into the shell at exactly at the spot where the adductor muscle attaches to pop it open. (Henk Caspers, Naturalis, Leiden, The Netherlands )

“The opening of shellfish by piercing the valve is unusual, and is not seen in either [early] Homo sapiens or Neanderthal middens,” which are essentially shellfish trash dumps, says Kat Szabo, an archaeologist at the University of Wollongong. If humans on Java were opening the shells for food, the method suggests they ate the shellfish raw. “As bivalves open easily after cooking, this does suggest that the mollusks at Trinil weren't cooked,” says Szabo.

There is another possible reason Homo erectus might have been scraping out mollusk shells. One specimen had been modified and was likely used as a tool. Under a microscope, the shell was visibly sharpened, with hallmark striations from contact with hard material. “The shell tool has a knife-like edge, so we assume that it was used for cutting and/or scraping,” says Joordens.

A shell tool (a) made by modifying the edge of a Pseudodon shell. Zooming in on the edge (b) reveals how sharp the tool might have been. (Francesco d’Errico, Bordeaux University )

Exactly what the shell was used for is impossible to know. A previous study suggested that cut marks on ancient cow bones found on Java likely came from shell tools, which could have been used to butcher animals, cut plants or clean fish. Neanderthals, which lived about 200,000 to㺨,000 years ago, also used shells as tools, though there’s evidence that they broke the shells and then sharpened them, notes Enza Spinapolice, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

The presence of a shell tool might explain the dearth of stone tools at hominin sites across Indonesia. “This has always been a puzzle,” says Joordens. “How would they butcher animals without stone tools?” It makes sense that the Java humans would simply use what they had at their disposal, but without further evidence of shell tools, it’s hard to be 100 percent sure.

These carvings go deep into the calcium carbonate shell, which is why evidence of the pattern survived over the centuries. But it’s possible other shells bore more superficial engravings. When fresh, the white shell would have been covered by a leathery brown outer layer, and a carved pattern on such a dark canvas probably looked striking in its day.

Perhaps even more intriguing is a single shell with what appears to be a geometric pattern—zigzagged grooves carved into the center of the outer shell. Analysis points to the patterns being carved on purpose. Again the team turned to modern mussels they tried carving similar patterns into Potamida littoralis with a shark tooth and compared that to weathering and natural abrasions. Sure enough, their carvings were the closest matches to the ancient pattern.

A microscope image of a line engraved by Homo erectus into a Pseudodon shell. (Joordens et al. )

“That must have been an appealing thing for Homo erectus,” says Joordens. “You can imagine sitting there with a shell in one hand and a tool in the other hand and maybe ready to open the shell for food, but then making a scratch and seeing this white line appear.”

The researchers used two dating techniques on preserved sediment in the shells to estimate their age: between 540,000 and 430,000 years old. The team also used x-rays to examine the Homo erectus bones and confirm that they came from the same rock layer as the shells. The results suggest that the Homo erectus fossils on Java aren’t quite as old as we thought they were. Still, the geometric engraving predates other examples by around 300,000 years, and the oldest Neanderthal shell tools are also much younger (about 110,000 years old).

Creation of geometric patterns could represent a higher level of creativity in Homo erectus than previously thought, or maybe such patterns aren’t the artistic masterpieces we suppose them to be. “This forces us to reassess not only the capacities of Homo erectus, but the criteria we use to gauge the behavioral evolution of our own species,” says Szabo.

Given that other Homo erectus populations used stone technology around the same time, the tools and scratches aren’t totally inconsistent with hominin abilities, notes Rick Potts, a paleoanthropologist with the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program. Homo erectus continued to live on Java until around 200,000 yeas ago, and for Potts, the possibility that these practices persisted as part of Homo erectus culture is even more interesting. “That [would mean] that this incipient capacity to impose a creative pattern on an object was a characteristic of the later members of this species,” says Potts “That's really cool.”

About Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

540,000 years ago | Trinil, Java

You know that feeling, when something important ends up buried at the bottom of a suitcase, or forgotten at the back of a drawer? And you don’t get around to digging it out until more than a hundred years later?

Losing things, yes. Taking a century to find them again, perhaps not. And when those forgotten things include half-million year old shells drilled through with shark teeth, along with by far the earliest evidence ever found of symbolic markings, and to top it off they come from the same archaeological site where the first Homo erectus fossils were discovered, we’re in the realm of the highly improbable.

Enter Josephine Joordens, and the team at Leiden’s Naturalis Biodiversity Center.

Missing links

The Indonesian site of Trinil, in central Java, holds a special place in the history of palaeontology (the study of fossil bones). In 1887, Dutch anatomist Eugène Dubois had deliberately joined the army so that he could be posted to Indonesia, then known by its colonial name of the Dutch East Indies. A firm believer in the new science of evolution, Dubois was convinced that humans must have evolved in the Asian tropics, and this was his quickest ticket to a suitably hot place.

Dubois was also certain that there would be an intermediate form of human, somewhere between living apes and humans. The skeleton of such a missing link would demonstrate those differences to skeptics (even though the term ‘missing link’ actually had its origins in biblical schemes of a great chain of being, created by some form of God).

Dubois wasn’t the only person on an ancestral fossil hunt. But he was among the luckiest. Only a few years after reaching Java, his massive excavations along the Solo River at Trinil turned up not only the top of a thick skull, but a thigh bone and tooth. In 1892, Dubois triumphantly named them Anthropopithecus erectus (upright human-like ape), before upgrading them slightly in 1893 to Pithecanthropus (ape-like human).

Here’s a view of the 1890s Trinil dig. It’s the kind of large-scale project best achieved—as Dubois did—with an army’s help and forced convict labour:

When Pithecanthropus itself went out of fashion in the 20th century, the Trinil fossils were renamed to Homo erectus, and those Indonesian fossils are still the type specimens against which thousands of other global finds from the same species are assessed. Job done, Dubois returned home, and his intellectual hero Ernst Haeckel (who coined the word ‘ecology’ among many other achievements) hung an unflattering painted reconstruction of Pithecanthropus in his house:

A fascinating tale. But wait, weren’t we talking about shells?

As you can imagine, Dubois didn’t only find a few proto-human bones among all those tonnes of sand and soil. He also found other animal remains, including hundreds of freshwater mollusc shells of the now-extinct species Pseudodon vondembuschianus trinilensis. These shells, each around 6x10cm, were carefully packed and shipped back to the Netherlands along with the bones and other finds.

Where, over time, they got pushed to the back of a museum drawer.

Shell shock

Move forward a century, and student Stephen Munro was examining and photographing some of the Trinil shells in the Naturalis collection. One shell in particular stood out as an oddity: close up, it seemed to have a series of zig-zag lines deliberately engraved into its surface:

This kind of doodling is commonplace, almost subconscious, in humans. But it is exceedingly rare in the animal world. We don’t see even intelligent, dextrous animals like elephants going around scratching patterns.

Because of that rarity, archaeologists have tended to place a lot of weight on what these kinds of patterns might tell us about the minds that created them. For example, an engraved piece of ocherous shale from South Africa, about 77,000 years old, led its discoverers to declare that these cross-hatchings:

suggest arbitrary conventions unrelated to reality-based cognition…and they may have been constructed with symbolic intent, the meaning of which is now unknown.

That African team, led by Chris Henshilwood, even suggested that the marks could indicate that their makers shared a full, abstract language, in order to be able to discuss the ochre scratches. Have a look for yourself:

There are definitely some parallels between this ochre design, which is suggested to be a Homo sapiens construct, and the design on the Trinil shell from around half a million years ago, which was found with Homo erectus bones. The question is whether those lines are parallel enough to transfer the notions of ‘symbolic intent’ and ‘fully syntactical language’ onto our Asian human ancestors. That possibility has scared some archaeologists, who prefer an explanation where modern humans engraved the shell lines too, which could only be true if there was some complicated mixing of the soil at Trinil.

The Leiden team also found that some of the shells were probably used as tools themselves. And around a third of the shells had a precise hole bored through one end. The placement of those holes was right where you’d drill to weaken the adductor muscle that a shellfish uses to hold itself closed. In other words, the holes were evidence of a kind of early, natural can opener:

By experimenting with modern shells and the materials available to a Javanese Homo erectus, the scientists decided that the only logical drilling tool was a shark tooth. The same shark tool may also have been used for shell engraving, with strength and control needed to incise through the outer organic layer on a living mollusc. Back in 500,000 BC that outer layer—or periostracum—would have given a dark contrast to the pattern as the engraver exposed the lighter shell beneath.

The Trinil shell engraving sits at the intersection of many of the ambiguous aspects of tool use, whether animal or human. Their creator is disputed, partly because of preconceived ideas about the ability of a hominin some 500,000 years ago. We didn’t see the engraving happen, and we have a tiny sample, so maybe it was a fluke, or accident—the same arguments have been levelled at modern animal behaviour. For people who prefer to see humans as unique, rather than an unusual extension of the natural world, there will always be some excuse as to why a seemingly complex form of tool use must actually be simple, or unimportant.

Fortunately, evidence doesn’t usually care about intellectual turf wars or human biases. As with many scientific advances, only time will tell.

Site of Trinil, Java, Indonesia - History

Abstrak. Trinil: Masa lalu, Sekarang dan Masa Depan Sebuah Situs Bersejarah. Dusun Trinil menjadi terkenal dengan ditemukannya Pithecanthropus erectus, sekarang Homo erectus, oleh Dubois pada tahun 1891. Setelah ekskavasi Dubois, pada tahun 1907 sebuah ekspedisi besar-besaran dipimpin oleh E. Selenka berlangsung di lokasi yang sama. Selain fosil-fosil sisa manusia, puluhan ribu fosil vertebrata lain dan moluska ditemukan dalam ekskavasi Dubois dan Selenka antara tahun 1891 dan 1907. Koleksi ini sekarang disimpan di Naturalis di Leiden (Belanda) dan di Museum für Naturkunde di Berlin (Jerman). Studi yang berlangsung saat ini terhadap koleksi-koleksi itu mendorong perlunya penelitian baru di lapangan. Tujuannya selain untuk mengetahui potensi situs juga untuk menjawab pertanyaan-pertanyaan yang muncul dalam studi koleksi. Parit penggalian Dubois dan ekspedisi Selenka dikontekstualisasikan dalam peta geografi modern berdasarkan data historis, bahan fotografi yang masih ada, dan peninjauan lapangan 2014/2015. Potensi untuk menemukan tinggalan pada ‘Hauptknochenschicht’ (HK) cukup besar di tepi kiri sungai Solo, di selatan penggalian Dubois yang asli, termasuk di tepi kiri disebelah timur lokasi yang digali. Pertanyaan yang masih tersisa, antara lain menyangkut stratigrafi situs, umur fauna Trinil dan Homo erectus, dan homogenitas himpunan HK, diharapkan dapat terjawab melalui penelitian baru yang akan dilaksanakan di situs ini.

Abstract. Trinil became famous through the discovery of Pithecanthropus erectus, now Homo erectus, by Dubois in 1891. After Dubois’ excavations it was the expedition led by E. Selenka in 1907 performing large scale fieldwork at the location. Apart from the hominin remains, thousands of other vertebrate and molluscan fossils were excavated by both Dubois and Selenka between 1891 and 1908. These collections are currently housed at Naturalis in Leiden (The Netherlands) and the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin (Germany). Ongoing studies of these collections have raised questions that warrant new fieldwork. This study aimed to establish the site‘s present potential to solve extant research questions. The excavation trenches of Dubois and the Selenka expedition were contextualized within a modern geographical map, based on historical data, extant photographic material and a 2014/2015 field trip. The potential to reach the find bearing Hauptknochenschicht (HK) is high at the left bank of the Solo river, south of Dubois’ original excavations. Also the left bank directly east of the former excavation pits has a good potential. Still remaining questions concerning the site stratigraphy, the age of the Trinil fauna, including the Homo erectus finds, and the homogeneity of the HK assemblage, might be resolved by new fieldwork.


Albers, P.C.H., and J. de Vos. 2010. Through Eugène Dubois’ Eyes Stills of a Turbulent Life. Leiden: Brill.

Bartstra, G.J. 1982. “Homo Erectus Erectus: The Search for His Artefacts.” Current Anthropology 23: 318–20.

Carthaus, E. 1911. “II. Teil. Die Arbeiten von August Bis November 1907.” In Die Pithecanthropus-Schichten Auf Java. Geologische Und Paläontologische Ergebnisse Der Trinil Expedition, edited by M.L. Selenka and M. Blanckenhorn. Leipzig: Verlag von Wilhelm Engelmann.

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Hooijer, D.A. 1958. “Fossil Bovidae from the Malay Archipelago and the Punjab.” Zoologische Verhandelingen Uitgegeven Door Het Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie Te Leiden 38: 1–112.

Hooijer, D.A., and B. Kurten. 1984. “Trinil and Kedungbrubus: The Pithecanthropus- Bearing Fossil Faunas of Java and Their Relative Age.” Annales Zoologici Fennici 21: 135–41.

Hrdlička, A. 1930. The Skeletal Remains of Early Man. Washington: Smithsonian Institution (Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 83), Plate 3.

Joordens, J. C. A., F.P. Wesselingh, J. de Vos, H.B. Vonhof, and D. Kroon. 2009. “Relevance of Aquatic Environments for Hominins: A Case Study from Trinil (Java, Indonesia).” Journal of Human Evolution 57: 656–71.

Joordens, Josephine C A, et al. 2015. “Homo Erectus at Trinil on Java Used Shells for Tool Production and Engraving.” Nature 518 (7538). Nature Publishing Group, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. All Rights Reserved.: 228–31.

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Ngawi has a monsoon tropical climate (Köppen climate classification Am) with heavy rain at early and lately year, and dry at middle of year.

Ngawi Regency is divided into nineteen [2] districts (kecamatan) and 217 villages.

Trinil Museum Edit

Trinil Museum is about 15 kilometers from Ngawi city and near to the Bengawan Solo River. The museum contains a collection of about 1,500 fossils, some of which are a million years old. As of 2013 up to 500 fossils had yet to be identified. In the late 19th century Eugene Dubois found Pithecantropus eretus in the Trinil area.

Oldest human-made mark in the world Edit

Researchers found in Trinil site that scratch at Pseudodon vondembuschianus trinilensis plain water clam shell aged 500,000 years is the oldest scratch in the world. Although the scratch is perhaps not art, its zig-zag shape is evidence that the scratch is human made. The clam shell has been found in 1896, but the zig-zag scratch was found in 2014. [3]

430,000 Year Old Shell Engravings By Homo Erectus from Trinil, Java

Wim Lustenhouwer/VU University Amsterdam. A shell found on Java in the late 1800s was recently found to bear markings that seem to have been carved intentionally half a million years ago. The photograph is about 15 millimetres wide.

The engraved shell pictured come from a freshwater mussel species that were collected in the 1890s by the Dutch paleontologist Eugène Dubois, from Trinil. The first H. erectus calvarium was also found there. Duboid brough home many other artifacts as well and were stored away in Leiden, Netherlands.

Henk Caspers/Naturalis. The shell, from a freshwater mussel, shows a hole made by a member of Homo erectus.

Josephine Joordens from Leiden University opened these boxes to work on a project about marine life at Trinil, a site 80km insland. She found some perforations made with a sharp object suggesting someone used tools to crack these shells open. A visiting colleague photographed the shells and later noticed a faint zigzag pattern on one. “He sent me an email with a photo attached,” she recalls, “and he said, ‘Well, Josie, what do you think? What are we looking at here?’ And we looked at it and we thought, well, it’s kind of strange.”

After years of study, however, she says they concluded this: “It was not an animal, it was not something natural. It must have been a human.” And, she says, the carving is very old.

She says it resembles early geometric engravings found on ochre in Blombos Cave in South Africa, from around 100,000 years ago. Yet a couple of different techniques for dating sediments found in the Java shells show that this carving was made between 430,000 and 540,000 years ago.

“It’s at least four times as old,” says Joordens. “Also, we are not talking now about our own species, modern humans, but we are talking about Homo erectus, a species that’s older even than Neanderthals. It’s putting the origin of such engraving behavior a lot farther back in time.”

The full study can be found published on Nature here, “Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving.” What do you think this is — symbolic behavior like art or some early hominid evidence of food processing?


The femoral neck-length and -height are the key parameters in establishing the taxonomic identity of Trinil 5703. These make an attribution to a primate the only reasonable one. These features, together with the general morphology of femur Trinil 5703 assessed by the metrical data, enable us to conclude that this specimen belongs to an adult or a subadult Hylobatidae.

Dubois' field crew collected Trinil 5703 while excavating the Trinil H.K. bonebed and catalogued the specimen as originating from the site. The color and state of preservation of Trinil 5703 are comparable to those exhibited by other fossils discovered in Trinil H.K., leaving little doubt that the specimen originated from the Homo erectus type stratum. Dubois [66, p.157] noticed that fossils from Trinil do not show prominent effects of fluvial transport. This is consistent with our own observations that Trinil 5703 is weakly abraded. From the geological evidence given above, as well as paleontological criteria [39], we conclude that the Trinil H.K. was deposited by a large river over a short period of time, with much of skeletal material in the bonebed apparently having come from deaths that had occurred shortly before deposition.

Although the femur Trinil 5703 had reached a practically full-grown stature, several features fit a subadult male: posteriorly positioned lesser trochanter, and weakly developed spiral line. Also the femur estimated original length is in the range of a present-day juvenile or sub-adult Hylobatidae, based upon metric comparisons of the fossil to modern material. Such a hypothesis could explain the presence of this isolated bone of a gibbon in Trinil assemblage, considering that high subadult mortality is not unusual for primates e.g. [68]. Alternatively, the Javanese Pleistocene is characterized by numerous changes in mammal body size, including dwarfism in large species and gigantism in small species (for an overview of the history, see [69]). Indications for this are for instance Duboisia santeng [54], Mececyon trinilensis [53] and Stegodon trigonocephalus [55]. Also, Hooijer [29] described a robust form of the small primate Trachypithecus auratus from the Trinil H.K. biozone. It is then possible that this gibbon evolved in isolation and therefore shows an unusual small size.

Gibbons are rare in the fossil record, and are found mostly as dentognathic remains [3]. The oldest examples of Hylobatidae in the fossil record are of Pliocene age from Yunnan Province, China. Only two fossils are known from the Lower Pleistocene also from China. No Hylobatidae fossil has been discribed from SEA before the Late Pleistocene Punung fauna of Java [3], but the primate specimens from the Punung fauna are teeth, only one of which is identified as Hyolbates moloch [4]. Ansyori [70] also identified an upper left second incisor of a Symphalangus sp. in the lower stratigraphical layers of Song Terus cave in the vicinity of Punung, and included the species in the Punung biozone. Trinil 5703, as a gibbon long-bone very likely attributable to the Lower/Middle Pleistocene Trinil H.K. fauna of Java, becomes the oldest known insular Hylobatidae fossil (on the insularity of the Trinil fauna, see [6]), one of the oldest representatives of the family in all SEA. Trinil 5703 further adds key skeletal material to the fossil record of a family that is principally known from dental specimens. The dating of Trinil 5703 supports the inference derived from molecular studies that gibbons first arrived in Sundaland near the Pliocene-Pleistocene boundary [71]. Lower/Middle Pleistocene fossils of Hylobatidae, which would be contemporaneous with Trinil 5703, have been recorded in China, Thailand and Vietnam [3].

Our identification of Trinil 5703 also provides key information on the paleoenvironment in the paleo-drainage area of Trinil. The Trinil H.K. represents remains of a once living community [39]. Although the predominance of herbivores in the assemblage indicates an open paleoenvironment, the lithological and paleontological features of the Trinil H.K. are better interpreted as representative of a broader set of paleoenvironments, including rain forest.

Paleoenvironmental studies have been conducted on the Javanese Lower/Middle Pleistocene deposits at Trinil and in the related lower Kabuh/Bapang sedimentary beds of Sangiran dome, 80 km to the west of Trinil. Study of the mammalian fauna, mainly from Trinil H.K., and the results of paleosol analyses at Sangiran indicate a savannah-like environment during this period [72]–[75]. Study of the ichthyofauna from Trinil H.K. gave similar results but also suggests the proximity of lakes and swamp forests. Based upon their study of the Trinil ichthyofauna, Joordens et al. [42] suggest that the grasslands were regularly inundated, and referred to the Trinil paleoenvironment as an “hydromorphic savanna”. Closed environment in the vicinity of Trinil during the Lower/Middle Pleistocene is also supported by the presence of the forest dweller bovid Duboisia santeng [54].

Palynological results from lower Kabuh/Bapang beds of Sangiran Dome testify to a mosaic of environments dominated by open vegetation (Poaceae) with ferns and rain forest-refuges [76, p. 131]. Palynological results from Trinil, although scarce, also testify to an open environment with the presence of a seasonal forest [76]. Fossil imprints of leaves and seeds of Ficus and Indigofera were collected from the Trinil discovery sequence by the Selenka expedition [77]. The fossils are considered to be typical of lowland rain forest [78].

The presence of a gibbon in Trinil H.K indicates that the closed forests were present near Trinil at the time of deposition. Small apes are mainly characterized by suspensory locomotion [79]. Their anatomy shows profound specialization for arboreal living, such as elongated limbs, including the hindlimb. In Trinil 5703, the globular femoral head, thin- and elongated-femoral neck, small-, deep- and rounded-trochanteric fossa, thin femoral shaft, and associated small platymeria index indicate that the species represented had suspensory locomotion comparable to that of present-day small apes. The diet of this clade largely consists of fruits and leaves. Acquiring these foods constrain small apes to high forest canopies, where dense tree branching is absent, and their preferred food resources are available throughout the year [80], [81]. Gibbons themselves are almost exclusively found in tropical lowland/upland evergreen rain forest. Mangrove, swamp and secondary forests are not appropriate for gibbons [80].

Watch the video: Trinil 3 (August 2022).