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Middle-Pleistocene Hominin Hand and Foot Impressions Found in Tibet

A series of previously unreported hand and foot impressions from the Tibetan Plateau dates to between 169,000 and 226,000 years ago (middle Pleistocene period) and may be the oldest work of art.

“The question is: What does this mean? How do we interpret these prints? They’re clearly not accidentally placed,” said co-author Dr. Thomas Urban, a researcher in the Department of Classics at Cornell University.

“There’s not a utilitarian explanation for these. So, what are they? My angle was, can we think of these as an artistic behavior, a creative behavior, something distinctly human.”

“The interesting side of this is that it’s so early.”

The series of five handprints and five symmetrical footprints was discovered near the Quesang village, approximately 80 km northwest of Lhasa in Tibet on a tributary of the Xiong Qu River.

They appear to have been intentionally placed on the surface of soft travertine, a freshwater limestone that was deposited by water from a hot spring which is now inactive and as the travertine lithified it preserved the traces.

On the basis of the sizes of the hand and foot traces, the researchers suggest that two track-makers were involved and were likely children.

“The fact that the panel includes handprints gives one hint,” they said.

“While footprints are common in the human record, handprints are much rarer.”

“Their presence connects the Tibetan panel to a tradition of parietal art — that is, art that is immobile — typified by hand stenciling on cave walls.”

The scientists hypothesize the child who made the footprints was around 7 years old and the child who made the handprints was about 12.

“This remarkable discovery adds to the body of research that identifies children as some of the earliest artists within the genus Homo,” they said.

More important than the age of the artists, however, is the question of their species.

Were they Homo sapiens? An extinct hominin? One theory, supported by the skeletal remains recently found on the Tibetan Plateau, holds they were Denisovans.

“The oldest parietal art is currently known from the Sulawesi region dating to 39,900 and 43,900 years ago and is also the oldest known use of hand motifs,” the authors said.

“The evidence from Tibet clearly indicates an even older origin for the parietal art in the world.”

The discovery is described in a paper in the journal Science Bulletin.

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