Archaeologists digging at an early hominin site in China have discovered two engraved bone fragments that date back nearly 115,000 years.
The two weathered bone fragments were found at the site of Lingjing in Xuchang county of China’s Henan province.
The specimens were examined by Dr. Francesco d’Errico from the Universities of Bordeaux and Bergen and his colleagues from China and France.
The researchers found that the bones are rib fragments from adult, large-sized mammals.
“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,” they said.
“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.”
Dr. d’Errico and co-authors also found red residue within the incised lines on one of the artifacts.
The Raman spectroscopy analysis of the residue revealed the presence of ochre, a naturally occurring iron oxide pigment.
“The fragments were found in the same stratigraphic layer that yielded hominin remains attributed to an archaic population exhibiting a mosaic of anatomical features,” the scientists said.
According to the team, the bone fragments were likely engraved symbolically by Denisovans, a mysterious close cousin of Neanderthals.
“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,” the study authors said.
“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.”
The engravings represent the first possible example of such behavior in Eastern Asia to predate 40,000 years ago.
“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 researchers said.
“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 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.”
“Future research may identify spatiotemporal consistencies that could offer clues to help in fully evaluating the significance of these behaviors.”
The study was published in the journal Antiquity.
Zhanyang Li et al. Engraved bones from the archaic hominin site of Lingjing, Henan Province. Antiquity, published online July 8, 2019; doi: 10.15184/aqy.2019.81