Fossilized footprints and more rarely handprints can be found around the world; left while people went about their daily business, preserved by freak-acts of geological conservation. In new research, our international team has discovered ancient hands and footprints high on the Tibetan plateau made by children.
The team claims that these traces represent the earliest example of parietal art. Parietal art is paintings, drawings and engravings on rock surfaces – the kind of thing you would find in a cave, even if the Tibetan traces are not in a cave.
The limestone on which the traces were imprinted dates from around 169,000 to 226,000 BC. This would make the place the earliest known example of this type of art in the world.
It would provide the earliest evidence for humans and other members of Homo genus (hominins) on the high Tibetan plateau. This discovery also adds to the research that identifies children as some of the earliest artists.
Hand shapes are commonly found in prehistoric caves. Usually the hand is used as a stencil, with pigment spread around the edge of the hand. The caves in Sulawesi, Indonesia or at El Castillo in Spain have some fine examples and are the oldest to date.
At Quesang, high on the Tibetan plateau, our team led by David Zhang of Guangzhou University found hand and footprints preserved in travertine from a hot spring. Travertine is freshwater limestone that is often used as bathroom tiles and in this case is deposited from hot water fed by geothermal heat.
The lime that accumulates in your boiler provides an analogy to this. When soft, the travertine takes an impression but then hardens to rock.
Five handprints and five footprints appear to have been carefully placed, probably by two children judging by the size of the tracks. The transcripts were not left under normal operation and appear to have been placed intentionally.
The child who made the footprints was probably around seven years old and the other who made the handprints, a little older, at the age of 12 years. The age estimates are based on the size of the track with reference to modern growth curves, e.g. Those produced by the World Health Organization.
Did the children randomly play in the mud while other members of the group took the water at the hot spring? We do not know, but the team argues that what they left is a work of art or prehistoric graffiti, if you prefer.
The team dated the travertine using a radiometric method based on the decay of uranium found in the limestone. The age is surprising, as the deposit dates from between 169,000 and 226,000 years ago.
This dates back to the Middle Pleistocene (mid-ice age) and provides evidence of the occupation of the earliest humans (or their direct ancestors) on the Tibetan plateau.
This is quite incredible when you consider the great height involved; Quesang has an altitude of over 4,200 meters and would have been cold even in an interglacial period. Age also makes this the oldest example of parietal art in the world.
Were the children members of our own kind, Homo sapiensor members of another extinct archaic human species? There is nothing in the tracks to solve this question.
They may have been an enigmatic group of archaic humans referred to as the Denisovans, given other recent skeletal finds of this kind on the plateau.
Should we consider this panel of prints as art? Well, it depends on one’s definition, but the brands were deliberately made and have a clear composition. Whatever these humble tracks represent, they clearly evoke images of children at great heights and enjoy a place of creative play.
Matthew Robert Bennett, Professor of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Bournemouth University and Sally Christine Reynolds, Principal Academic in Hominin Palaeoecology, Bournemouth University.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.