December 05, 2014

NEWS: The “500,000” Year Old Shell Engravings

This story all over the news of a 500,000 year-old shell with etchings on it from Homo erectus or some human ancestor is a perfect example of everything that’s wrong with anthropology these days. The dating is hugely suspicious.

The mollusk shell was found on the Indonesian island of Java. It has well-defined, zigzag lines on it that appear almost certainly to have been intentionally engraved on the shell by an intelligent creature. The questions are: “when,” “how,” “why,” and “by whom?” These questions have been presumptuously and eagerly answered by the following: “~500,000 years ago,” “by a sharks tooth,” “for symbolic purposes,” “by Homo erectus.”[1,2,3] However, all of these answers are highly speculative. The true facts are only that this shell was buried sometime from 540-430,000 years ago and that at some point it was etched by relatively intelligent creatures. The dating is based on sediments found inside the shell. The etching could have been done at almost any point later

Although the team dated four of the shells in the collection, including the engraved shell, to about 500,000 years ago using two different techniques on sediments of sand and clay found inside them, Ciochon says that those sediments could have entered the shells during the earlier flood event that created the site, and that H. sapiens still could have come along much later and performed the etching.”[2]

So, although this finding has the potential of being hugely significant in regard to “human” evolution, it’s far from settled when these etchings were made. There are significant problems in dating the engraving to 500,000 years ago, as other scientists have noted. (1.) Why did mental evolution seem to stagnate for 400,000 years? (2.) Why haven’t other such ancient engravings been found elsewhere that can be tied to Homo erectus?[3]

If the proposed date of the etching does turn out to be valid, then evolutionary human ancestors were more intelligent and thoughtful than anyone has realized. However, this would actually highlight the intellectual revolution that appears to have happened about 80-50,000 years ago when human art took a huge leap. Not until about 60,000 years ago do we find cave art with hand prints or detailed drawings of animals. Such work can only be described as art. Simple lines drawn on a shell could easily be the work of a much lesser mind than the human mind. There is still good reason to hypothesize that somewhere from 80-50,000 years ago Homo sapiens went from being mere animals to being true, spiritual, self-aware humans.

The reason this story is all that is wrong with anthropology is because it is highly sensationalized with bold proclamations that this engraving was done by Homo erectus. Something this extraordinary requires extraordinary evidence. Extreme caution should be used when reporting such a finding, and many reports are anything but cautious. The proposed date for the engraving is too speculative. Caution would require that we doubt the date being valid. The idea that these lines represent art or symbolic thought is too speculative. We simply cannot be sure what was going on in the mind of the creator of these lines. Caution would require that we carefully question a symbolic meaning behind these lines. We can’t believe every report we read.


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