Archaeologists discover 115,000 year-old bone engravings possibly created by Denisovans

The oldest human bone engraving has just been unearthed by an international team of archaeologists in China, shedding light on an ancient human species that lived alongside the Neanderthals.

At a site the team has been excavating since 2005, French and Chinese archaeologists led by
Zhanyang Li and Luc Doyon made a discovery that changes our current views of humans from Pleistocene times over 100,000 years ago. Specifically, they found two human rib bones that feature engravings that look like an attempt at art.

That may sound taboo today, but it seemed to have been an accepted practice tens of thousands of years ago. The team described their findings in a study published by the journal Antiquity, which is part of Cambridge University.

“The production of abstract engravings is considered an indicator of modern human cognition and a means for the long-term recording and transmission of information,” the report states.

Dating back to around 115,000 years ago, the engraved human bones were found at the Lingjing site in Xuchang in central China’s Henan province.

Dr. Francesco d’Errico from the Universities of Bordeaux and Bergen performed a scientific analysis of the fragments and found that whoever did the engraving also added color.

“The carefully engraved nature of the incisions, made on weathered rib fragments, precludes the possibility of unintentional or utilitarian origins,” the report said. “Residue analysis demonstrates the presence of ochre within the incised lines on one specimen. This research provides the first evidence for the deliberate use of ochred engravings for symbolic purposes by East Asian Late Pleistocene hominins.”

bone engraving
Image via Antiquity/Cambridge

Study co-author Luc Doyon of Shandong University’s Institute of Cultural Heritage explained the importance of the find to the Indian Express.

“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,” Doyon said.

The team believes the bones were engraved by the Denisovans, a human species that lived at the same time as Neanderthals and also died out as our own Homo sapien species came to dominate the landscape.

The bone engraving is evidence that the Denisovans had cultural beliefs and expressed them.

“The lines on one of the bones were produced by an extremely sharp point, and the prehistoric individual was particularly careful when engraving the first five lines,” the team reported. “To increase the visibility of the subsequent lines, the engraver marked them using multiple strokes. Combined, this evidence does not support an interpretation of the lines as evidence of butchery activity, but rather, deliberate engraving of the bone.”

Analysis of the bone fragment. Image via Antiquity/Cambridge

“The fragments were found in the same stratigraphic layer that yielded hominin remains attributed to an archaic population exhibiting a mosaic of anatomical features,” they continued. “A growing body of evidence from Europe and Southeast Asia supports the hypothesis that the cultural adaptations of archaic hominins involved symbolically mediated behavior, thereby challenging the notion that modern cognitive abilities are restricted to Homo sapiens. While many scholars now agree on this hypothesis with regard to Neanderthals, we offer the first evidence to suggest that the same may also apply to Denisovans — the probable creators of the Lingjing engravings.”

Past findings of bone tools at the site only reinforce the new hypothesis.

“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,” Doyon said. “They consist 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.”

The study also highlighted that find.

“A recent identification of bone and antler fragments that were used to retouch lithics demonstrates that the Lingjing hominins were familiar with the mechanical properties of weathered bone and considered it to be a suitable raw material for producing artifacts,” the study said. “The Lingjing engravings suggest that these populations also saw bone as a medium on which they could permanently record sequential markings and use ochre as a substance to help highlight them.”

It’s similar to recent findings that Neanderthals constructed tools by warming resin to make an ancient glue to attach a flint to a wooden handle for easier use, demonstrating that Neanderthals were not only proficient at making fires, but using fire and specific substances as well, proving that our perceptions of them as unintelligent and uninnovative is wrong.

But Doyon concedes that not all archaeologists agree on the degree to which these ancient human species can be compared to our own.

“It is clear that members of our species, Homo sapiens, possess these abilities,” he said. “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.”

It would probably help if the team is able to determine what the bone engraving means, but they cannot do so at this time.

“We are still far from understanding the meaning of these engravings for the archaic human groups living in China during the early Late Pleistocene,” the team said. “Future research may identify spatiotemporal consistencies that could offer clues to help in fully evaluating the significance of these behaviors.”

Their discovery is already changing our views about our ancient ancestors, but once they figure out the meaning of the engravings, if they have any meaning at all, it would only strengthen their hypothesis.

Engravings on human bones sounds grim, and is certainly a forbidden practice in our modern world, but these engravings help us understand the intellectual and cultural capacity of human species that came before us. And that can only help us learn more about ourselves.

Here’s some in-depth commentary about this discovery from The Jindo below:

More about the Denisovans from Pique:

Featured Image: Screenshots via YouTube

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