For a species of ancient hominins that was only identified in 2010, the Denisovans are getting their fair share of publicity. In addition to bones being found in China as well as the Denisovan Cave in Siberia, their DNA is being found in a number of modern cultures. The latest news is that they weren’t just human and Neanderthal cousins, they were also artists.
“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.”
In an interview with The Indian Express, Luc Doyon, postdoctoral fellow at Shandong University’s Institute of Cultural Heritage, described the discovery of abstract engravings dating back between 105,000 and 125,000 that were found on human bone fragments uncovered at the Lingjing excavation site in Xuchang in central China’s Henan province. (Photos of the bones and engravings here.) Doyon is the co-author of a new study published in the journal Antiquity which identifies the likely artists.
“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.”
Before you get excited that these might be abstract wall paintings or hand-drawn Denisovan selfies, the bone engravings made with red ochre are simple lines … but they’re distinct enough from the other scratches and scrapes on the bone fragments (from butchering or animal chewing) to indicate that they were deliberately made.
“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 long-term recording and transmission of information.” Were these bones Denisovan methods of counting? Not likely, but Doyon isn’t sure if they were works of art or ceremonial symbols either – after all, the etchings were on human, not animal, bones.
“Future research may identify spatiotemporal consistencies that could offer clues to help in fully evaluating the significance of these behaviors.”
What the bone engravings do indicate as that these Denisovans in China were smarter than the hominins they replaced and on their way to becoming modern humans before they themselves were displaced by homo sapiens.
It’s amazing what five ochre lines on a bone fragment can tell us.