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Art or not?  Ancient handprints spark debate

According to an international team of geologists and archaeologists, hand and foot prints that appear to have been made by two children around 200,000 years ago may be the earliest human work of art.

Some other scientists are skeptical that the prints were made on purpose, or even that they are as old as the analysis suggests. But if they are works of art – even artwork made in-game – then they are over 100,000 years older than the earliest known cave paintings.

“The arrangement of the footprints defies any practical explanation, such as walking, or any accidental explanation, such as a fall,” said Cornell University archaeologist Thomas Urban, co-author of a study published online Friday in the journal Science Bulletin. “They appear to have been carefully arranged, implying a conscious choice was made in placing them this way.”

The ancient footprints were found on a rock near the village of Quesang in Tibet, about 80 km northwest of the capital, Lhasa, next to a hot spring that is still used to fill a public bath.

Analysis suggests they were pressed into soft limestone called travertine that settled around the hot spring 169,000 to 226,000 years ago.

Urban said he thinks they were done on purpose.

“The footprints would not simply be a byproduct of another activity such as jumping or running,” he said in an email. “They are a primary product – the engraver was making the prints intentionally.”

The researchers believe the handprints and footprints were made deliberately by two children, one around seven years old and the other around 12 years old.
Zhang et al / Scientific Bulletin

The researchers conducted a rigorous analysis of the handprints and footprints, including estimating the age of the rock they were imprinted on by measuring the levels of uranium isotopes it contained.

The size of the prints indicates that they were made by two children, one around 7 years old and the other around 12 years old.

This dating suggests that they may have belonged to the genus Homo, which includes our own species Homo sapiens.. But it is likely that they would have been the first human species of Neanderthals.Homo neanderthalensisor the related group Denisovans – provisionally classified as Homo Denisova.

Urban noted that recent genetic studies have shown Denisovans to have lived on the Tibetan Plateau for a long time, but Quesang’s hand and footprints – whether deliberate or not – are the earliest evidence found there of. a kind of Homo.

These are also some of the earliest handprints found in the world, although some known handprints are older.

“Handprints are relatively rare because there are simply fewer opportunities to leave a handprint during routine activities,” he said. “Human hand stencils appear like rock art in many places, but not as early as this site.”

The earliest cave paintings date back to around 64,800 years, and scientists recently announced the discovery of a carved deer bone dating to 51,000 years ago that appears to be the oldest movable work of art.

The Quesang limestone rock is now hard, but researchers say it would have formed a soft layer deposited by the hot spring waters when the footprints were made.
Zhang et al / Scientific Bulletin

The motif of the human hand connects the prints by Quesang to later cave paintings.

“I see a connection, at least in the capacity for artistic behavior,” Urban said. “The hand is so important to humans – it enabled our ancestors to make practical tools for survival, but also to eventually create the early visual arts. We still rely on it in the age of emails and texts.

The fact that the handprints appear to have been made by children is also a hallmark of some early prehistoric arts.

“Children are generally more open to playful expression, imagination and seeing the world in different ways,” he said. “Perhaps it is in childhood that we see the roots of artistic behavior, unencumbered by rigid understandings of the world.”

Some other scientists are skeptical of the artistic intent of Quesang’s prints.

Eduardo Mayoral, a paleontologist at the University of Huelva in Spain, who has studied Neanderthal footprints but was not involved in the latest research, said the analysis of the footprints on the rock appeared to be correct, but he was not convinced they were artistic.

“I find it hard to think that there is ‘intentionality’ in this design,” he said in an email. “And I don’t think there are any scientific criteria to prove it – it’s a matter of faith, and of wanting to see things one way or another.”

Michael Petraglia, archaeologist and anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, added that there may not be enough evidence to know for sure that the footprints of hands were art, or that they are as old as the block of limestone itself.

“It’s a really big claim,” said Petraglia, who was not on the study. “And with such a gigantic claim, the amount of evidence you would need to gather would be quite large in terms of scientific work.”

Petraglia, who has studied human footprints in Arabia, said photographs of the Quesang Rock appear to show that the handprints and footprints are discolored, which could suggest they have been tampered with. He also said the footprints may have been cut into the rock after its initial formation.

“I would say the jury is still out on the relationship between the draws and the dates,” he said.