The manufacture of geometric engravings is generally interpreted as indicative of modern cognition and behaviour1. Key questions in the debate on the origin of such behaviour are whether this innovation is restricted to Homo sapiens, and whether it has a uniquely African origin1. Here we report on a fossil freshwater shell assemblage from the Hauptknochenschicht (‘main bone layer’) of Trinil (Java, Indonesia), the type locality of Homo erectus discovered by Eugène Dubois in 1891 (refs 2 and 3). In the Dubois collection (in the Naturalis museum, Leiden, The Netherlands) we found evidence for freshwater shellfish consumption by hominins, one unambiguous shell tool, and a shell with a geometric engraving. We dated sediment contained in the shells with 40Ar/39Ar and luminescence dating methods, obtaining a maximum age of 0.54 ± 0.10 million years and a minimum age of 0.43 ± 0.05 million years. This implies that the Trinil Hauptknochenschicht is younger than previously estimated. Together, our data indicate that the engraving was made by Homo erectus, and that it is considerably older than the oldest geometric engravings described so far4,5. Although it is at present not possible to assess the function or meaning of the engraved shell, this discovery suggests that engraving abstract patterns was in the realm of Asian Homo erectus cognition and neuromotor control.

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We thank colleagues O. F. Huffman, P. Albers, R. Dennell, M. Martinón-Torres, G. Cadée, O. Dutour, K. M. Cohen, P. de Boer, A. van Gijn, C. Hofman, Y. Lammers-Keijsers, A. C. Sorensen, W. Renema, R. Moolenbeek, R. van Zelst, C. A. Johns, A. J. Versendaal, E. Voskuilen, T. G. van Meerten, R. van Elsas, H. Vonhof, S. Kars, W. Koot, P. Bouchet, V. Héros, J. W. Dogger, L. Dekkers, B. Dutailly, G. Devilder and J. Porck. J.C.A.J., W.R. and T.R. acknowledge financial support from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research NWO (Open Programme Grant to J.C.A.J., Spinoza Grant 28-548 to W.R. and Rubicon Grant 825.11.03 to T.R.). F.d’E. acknowledges financial support from the European Research Council (FP7/2007/2013, TRACSYMBOLS 249587), and C.A. acknowledges financial support from the STW Technology Foundation (STW.10502).

Author information


  1. Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, PO Box 9515, 2300RA, Leiden, The Netherlands

    • Josephine C. A. Joordens
    • , Herman J. Mücher
    • , Victoria van der Haas
    •  & Wil Roebroeks
  2. Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences, VU University Amsterdam, De Boelelaan 1085, 1081HV, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

    • Josephine C. A. Joordens
    • , Jan R. Wijbrans
    • , Klaudia F. Kuiper
    • , Anne S. Schulp
    • , Wim Lustenhouwer
    •  & John J. G. Reijmer
  3. Université de Bordeaux, CNRS UMR 5199, Allée Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 33615 Pessac, France

    • Francesco d’Errico
    •  & Hélène Coqueugniot
  4. Institute of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion, University of Bergen, Øysteinsgate 3PO Box 7805, Bergen, Norway

    • Francesco d’Errico
  5. Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Darwinweg 2, PO Box 9517, 2300RA, Leiden, The Netherlands

    • Frank P. Wesselingh
    • , John de Vos
    •  & Anne S. Schulp
  6. School of Archaeology and Anthropology, Australian National University, Australian Capital Territory, 0200 Canberra, Australia

    • Stephen Munro
  7. National Museum of Australia, Australian Capital Territory 2601, Canberra, Australia

    • Stephen Munro
  8. Wageningen University, Soil Geography and Landscape Group & Netherlands Centre for Luminescence Dating, PO Box 47, 6700AA, Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • Jakob Wallinga
    • , Christina Ankjærgaard
    •  & Tony Reimann
  9. Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Applied Sciences, Mekelweg 15, 2629JB, Delft, The Netherlands

    • Jakob Wallinga
    • , Christina Ankjærgaard
    •  & Tony Reimann
  10. Prinses Beatrixsingel 21, 6301VK, Valkenburg, The Netherlands

    • Herman J. Mücher
  11. Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, UMR 7205, Institut de Systématique, Evolution, Biodiversité, CP51, 55 Rue Buffon, 75005 Paris, France

    • Vincent Prié
  12. Biotope Recherche et Développement, 22 Boulevard Maréchal Foch, 34140 Mèze, France

    • Vincent Prié
  13. Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, PO Box 1600, 3800BP, Amersfoort, The Netherlands

    • Ineke Joosten
    •  & Bertil van Os
  14. Natuurhistorisch Museum Maastricht, De Bosquetplein 7, 6211KJ, Maastricht, The Netherlands

    • Anne S. Schulp
  15. Faculté de Médecine, Université d′Aix-Marseille, EFS, CNRS UMR 7268, Boulevard Pierre Dramard, 13344 Marseille, France

    • Michel Panuel
  16. Department of Medical Imaging Hôpital Nord, Assistance Publique – Hôpitaux de Marseille, Chemin de Bourrellys, 13915 Marseille, France

    • Michel Panuel


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J.C.A.J., F.d’E., F.P.W. and W.R. conceived the study. J.C.A.J., F.d’E., F.P.W. and S.M. analysed the shell assemblage. S.M. discovered the engraving. F.d’E. and J.C.A.J. studied the tool and the engraving, assisted by W.L. I.J. did the SEM imaging. J.W., C.A. and T.R. carried out the luminescence dating. J.R.W. and K.F.K. carried out the 40Ar/39Ar dating assisted by V.v.d.H. H.J.M. carried out the micromorphological analysis. V.P. and J.C.A.J. conducted the shell opening experiments. B.v.O., A.S.S. and J.C.A.J. performed the XRF analysis. M.P. did the CT scanning, H.C. carried out the 3D analysis and directed the video. J.C.A.J., F.d’E., F.P.W. and W.R. wrote the paper, with contributions by all other co-authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Josephine C. A. Joordens.

Extended data

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Text 1-12, which includes additional results and discussion, Supplementary Tables 3 and 4 (see separate files for Supplementary Tables 1,2, 5, 6), and additional references.

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Table 1

    This file contains the Shell database: Shell dimensions of fossil Pseudodon vondembuschianus trinilensis from Trinil HK, recent Pseudodon vondembuschianus from Java, and recent Unio crassus from the Seine River (France). For the Pseudodon it is recorded whether valves are single or paired (articulated) and still connected; and whether the valves are closed or partially open; and whether shells were consolidated in the museum by applying glue. The Pseudodon shell area is divided into seven zones (AC3;Fig. 1b), and presence of breakage, etching, dissolution pits, desquamation, abrasion, holes and grooves is recorded for each zone.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Table 2

    This file contains the HH-XRF data of fossil hominins and non-hominin fauna from Trinil: The value for yttrium (Y (Ca-corrected)) is obtained by dividing Y counts by Ca counts, multiplied by six (see Supplementary Information section 3).

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Table 5

    This file contains the analytical details of Trinil hornblende, glass shards and feldspars single multi-grain fusion experiments: Location indicates the sample split taken from the three shell infill samples (Trinil-1-3). The reduced and full isotope intensities are given; corrected for baseline, mass discrimination and decay of 37Ar and 39Ar, as well as radiogenic 40Ar contents and K/Ca ratios for individual analyses (see Supplementary Information section 10).

  4. 4.

    Supplementary Table 6

    This file contains the characteristics and dose rates of the investigated samples: a Water content estimate is based on the lithology and information on the burial context of the sample. b Grain size fraction used for luminescence measurements. c The internal concentration of potassium was assumed to be 12.5 ± 0.5 %67. Rubidium concentration was assumed to be 400 ± 100 ppm68. d Based on the U, Th and K concentrations from neutron activiation analysis and converted to dose rate using the conversion factors of Guérin et al.69. e Total dose rates include a cosmic dose rate of 0.11 ± 0.03 Gy/ka; the systematic (syst.) error (shared by the samples) and random (rand.) errors are specified. Reference numbers refer to references listed in the SI pdf (see Supplementary Information section 11).


  1. 1.

    Animation of shell opening made on the basis of a CT scan of a living Unio mancus turtonii.

    It shows how a sharp object perforates the shell at the location of the anterior adductor muscle and hits the muscle (indicated in red). This causes loss of muscle control, and the shell then can be opened.

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