Audio interview

Human history rewritten by ancient engravings

6 Dec 2014

Stephen Munro from the Australian National University was studying a collection of fossilised bones of Homo erectus and mussel shells held by a museum in the Netherlands and collected from Java in the late 19th century.

Closer examination of his photographs revealed man-made engravings on the mussel shells. The engravings have been dated at between 430,000 and 540,000 years old.

The previous oldest-known engravings were around 100,000 years old. It is unclear whether the pattern was intended as art, or served some other purpose.

It is the first evidence of Homo erectus behaving in this way. The shells had been opened by drilling a hole through the shell, likely with a shark’s tooth, exactly at the point where the muscle is attached to the shell. This allows the shell to be opened, and the contents to be eaten. This discovery marks a significant element in the story of human evolution.


Stephen Munro, Curator, National Museum of Australia, Canberra ACT

Researcher School of Archaeology and Anthropology, Australian National University Canberra ACT

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