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Handicrafts found near Tibetan hot spring 200,000 years ago

Paleoart of creating fossils.

Artist’s representation of two Middle Pleistocene hominins leaving their traces.
Illustration: Gabriel Ugeto

An international team of researchers reported the discovery of hand and foot prints at Kesang on the Tibetan plateau. Fossil prints that date from 169,000 to 226,000 years ago and appear to have been intentionally created may represent the earliest known art of its kind.

This form of ancient visual expression, called parietal art, usually occurs on the walls of caves, but can also be realized on earth, as seems to have happened in the case of the recent discovery of Tibet. The fossil is a series of hand and foot prints, none of which overlap.

In addition to being potentially the oldest known parietal artwork, this site is the earliest evidence of hominins so high on the Tibetan plateau, which is about 12,000 feet above sea level. The team’s work in describing the fossilized prints was published this week in Science Bulletin.

Fossil prints

Fossil prints
Photo: DD Zhang et al. / Scientific Bulletin

“It is well known how footprints remain during normal activities such as walking, running, jumping, including things like sliding,” said Thomas Urban, a scientist at Cornell University’s Tree Ring Laboratory and co-author of the new paper. email to Gizmodo. “These prints, however, are more meticulous and have a specific arrangement – think more about the lines, like a child pressing a handprint into fresh cement.”

Image showing the position of each print.

Image showing the position of each print.
Graphic: DD Zhang et al. / Scientific Bulletin

The prints – five from the hands and five from the feet – were taken in the mud near the Kesang hot spring. The mud has evolved into a travertine rock over the millennia. Various handprints near the site were discovered by lead author David Zhang in 1988 near a modern bathhouse, but the prints that the authors believe are works of art were not discovered until 2018. Although the estimated date range for the fossils is wide, even the most recent ages predate cave paintings such as Lasko and Sulawesi more than 120,000 years.

Based on the size of the prints, the team estimates the artists could be 7 and 12 years old. (The footprints were 7 years old, but the handprints were larger.) This finding suggests that the prints were made Homo sapienshowever, what the researchers are not sure about. If the appearance of the person who made these prints was not Homo sapiens, assumptions about age may be wrong. The timeline of prints is roughly the same as Denisovskie remains which were found on the Tibetan plateau, so this is one of the alternative candidates for track creators.

Fossil scanning.

3D scan of the Quesang print panel showing the depth gradient of the prints.
Image: DD Zhang et al. / Scientific Bulletin

The question of whether engravings are art at all also remains open. According to Matthew Bennett, a geologist at the University of Bournemouth who specializes in ancient trails and trails, it is likely that these ancient prints were intentional. “This is a composition that is deliberate, the fact that no footprints were left in normal traffic, and the care that one footprint does not overlap the next, all indicative of deliberate attention,” Bennett told Gizmodo in an email. …

“Whether this behavior is artistic depends on which definition is applied, but it falls into a class of behavior that is usually more complex than that of other animals,” Urban said. “Symbolic behavior such as language, religion and art should have simpler manifestations at the beginning of human history, so if you are looking for the earliest art, do not look for the Mona Lisa, or you will probably be disappointed.”

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