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Earliest evidence of human individuality

 

Hand tools

The use of hand-made stone tools pre-dates Homo sapiens.

 

 

Clothing

The earliest surviving footwear appears to predate any other form of surviving clothing. These are the Fort Rock sandals, the first of which were found during excavations in the 1930s. Woven from sagebrush bark and other fibres, they were found above and below volcanic ash deposited by the explosion of Mt Mazama, which created Crater Lake 7600 years ago, in Oregon. All directly dated (via AMS 14C) Fort Rock sandals range in age from 10,500 cal. Before Present to c. 9300 cal. BP. [Connolly and Barker]

 

photo of earliest surviving footwear

(© UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History)

Personal adornment

47 Nassarius shell beads that may date from as much as 110,000 BP were found in 2009 in a limestone cave at the Grotte des Pigeons at Taforalt in Eastern Morocco. Most of them are perforated and some are covered in red ochre. These are probably the earliest-known bodily adornments. [ScienceDaily]

photo of earliest personal adornment

(Image courtesy of University of Oxford)

Tattoos

Although Ötzi the Iceman—the natural mummy, found in 1991, of a man who lived about 5300 years ago (now on display in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, north Italy)—had 61 carbon tattoos on his body, it is not certain that these were for bodily adornment, as they may have been related to treatments for the relief of arthritic pain. [Deter-Wolf]

The image to the right is of a tattoo on the right arm of a Scythian chief whose mummy was discovered at Pazyryk, Russia. His body was almost completely covered in tattoos, which were made more than 2500 years ago. [Hermitage]

 

photo of the tattooed right arm of a Scythian chief

(Image from the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg)

Art

2-dimensional

A colourful pebble bearing a sequence of linear incisions may be the world's oldest engraving. The fragment is a remnant of a formerly semi-circular ochre pebble that probably contained a much more extensive engraved design on its surface

The object, described in the April 2012 issue of the Journal of Archaeology, dates back approximately 100,000 years ago and could also be the world’s oldest known abstract art. It was recovered from Klasies River Cave in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa.

Associated human remains indicate that the engraved piece was certainly made by Homo sapiens. [Viegas]

[This page confines its coverage to Homo sapiens. On 3 December 2014 it was announced in Nature that engraved lines had been found on freshwater mussel shells from Trinil, Java, which are at least 430,000 years old. These will, however, have been engraved by Homo erectus.]

photo of the earliest two-dimensional art

(Photo: Riaan Rifkin)

The earliest surviving representational art may be this Australian Aboriginal rock painting, discovered at the centre of the Arnhem Land plateau about 2008. A palaeontologist has confirmed that the animals depicted are the megafauna species Genyornis. As the birds are believed to have become extinct about 40,000 years ago, either the art predates this, or the birds survived to more recent times than previously believed.

 

 

 

 

 

Given the doubt over the dating of the Australian painting, the most reliably dated is a faint image of a babirusa ('pig-deer), known to be at least 35,400 years old, found in 2014 in a cave at Maros, on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia. This can just about be made out below the stencil of a hand, in the image on the right. [Nature]

 

 

 

photo of the earliest surviving representational art, an Australian rock painting

(Photo: Ben Gunn)

photo of a cave painting from Indonesia

(Photo: Maxime Aubert)

Self-portrait, with autograph signature

A sketch in rust-red drawn on a limestone ostracon (a piece of broken pottery) represents the self-portrait of the scribe, Sesh, wearing a knee-length kilt, his arms raised to present a papyrus roll and possibly a writing palette. The sketch is signed with the hieroglyph of 'scribe', consisting of a palette with wells for red and black ink, shoulder strap, water pot and reed pen. Measuring 11 x 12 cm, it was created in Deir-el-Medina, Western Thebes, 19th or 20th dynasty, c. 1292–1069 BCE, and excavated there, c. 1975. It is preserved in the Schøyen Collection (MS 1695). [From Cave Paintings to the Internet]

 

There is a possible earlier contender: a stele carved in about 1365 BCE, now in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, depicts the pharaoh Akhenaten's chief sculptor, Bek, and his wife Taheret. It is likely that Bek produced the work himself. An image may be found here.

photo of an Egyptian self-portrait

Schøyen Collection MS 1695

3-dimensional

The Venus of Hohle Fels is an Upper Palaeolithic Venus figurine found in 2008 in the Hohle Fels cave near Schelklingen, in Germany. Carved from the tusk of a woolly mammoth, it is dated to between 35,000 and 40,000 years Before Present. It is the oldest undisputed example of Upper Palaeolithic art, and of figurative art in general. [Conard, Henderson]

The mammoth ivory figurine of a lion found in the 1930s in Vogelherd Cave in Germany, has recently been found to be fully 3-dimensional, rather than just in relief, with the discovery of the missing half of the lion's head. This figurine too is dated to around 40,000 years BP. [Lobell]

Earlier objects, including the Venus of Tan-Tan, the Venus of Berekhat Ram, and the Makapansgat pebble, can't be confirmed as human artefacts.

photo of the Venus of Hohle Fels

Portrait

This image, carved in mammoth ivory 26,000 years ago, was found found in the Czech Republic at Dolní Věstonice, Moravia. Exhibited at the British Museum in London in the spring of 2013, it was widely publicised as the world's earliest known portrait. It shows a woman with her hair drawn up on the top of her head, with a fringe across her brow (or possibly wearing a fur hat). Although earlier images of people survive, this is seen as the first actual portrait of an individual person because of the distinctiveness of the features depicted.

The British Museum's curator Jill Cook said, "The reason we say it is a portrait is because she has absolutely individual characteristics. She has one beautifully engraved eye; on the other, the lid comes over and there's just a slit. Perhaps she had a stroke, or a palsy, or was injured in some way. In any case, she had a dodgy eye. And she has a little dimple in her chin: this is an image of a real, living woman."

 [British Museum, The Guardian]

 

 

 

 

 

The earliest-known realistic portrait of a named individual, taken from life, has been said to be a portrait-statue including Queen Mertetefs, wife of Seneferu, the last king of third dynasty Egypt, and wife, by her second marriage, to Khufu, the first king of the fourth dynasty, the builder of the Great Pyramid. The statue is one of a limestone group of three figures representing Mertetefs, her ka (an aspect of her soul), and a priest named Kennu, who was her private secretary. The queen is depicted with buff flesh-tints and black hair. [Edwards 1891: 135-6]

The historical information given by Edwards is confusing, and doesn't correspond with current interpretation. On the assumption that by "Seneferu" is meant Sneferu, the first king of fourth dynasty Egypt, there doesn't appear to be a wife named Mertetefs, although his "main wife" is said to have been Hetepheres I, who was the mother of Khufu (although this is now contested). It's most likely, though, that by "Mertetefs" is meant Meritites I; the latter was a daughter of Sneferu and the wife of Khufu.

Almost certainly the portrait described by Edwards is the one pictured here, identified as Meritites and her son Shenou. This statue is held by the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, as stated by Edwards. [Bubastis]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The earliest-known portrait of a named individual, the realism of which has been verified by facial reconstruction of their skull, is on the painted terracotta sarcophagus of an Etruscan noblewoman named Seianti Hanunia Tesnasa, who died about 2200 years ago in central Italy. The sarcophagus, on which she is named, bears a life-size sculpture of a middle-aged woman reclining and holding a mirror. Both the sarcophagus and the bones housed within are now in the British Museum. The facial reconstruction from her skull was made by Richard Neave.

photo of a portrait in mammoth ivory

photo of the earliest known realistic portrait

(Photography: C. Smeesters)

 

(Image: British Museum)

Musical instrument

Flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory, discovered by an Oxford University team led by Prof. Tom Higham in the Geißenklösterle Cave in Germany's Swabian Jura, have been carbon-dated to between 42,000 and 43,000 before the present, making them the earliest musical instruments ever discovered. [Journal of Human Evolution, BBC News]

photo of flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory

Personal name (male)

Scorpion I was the first of two kings of Upper Egypt with this name. He reigned during the Protodynastic Period, 3200–3000 BCE. The name may refer to the scorpion goddess Serket.

He is believed to have lived in Thinis a century or two before the rule of the better known King Scorpion of Nekhen and is presumably the first true king of Upper Egypt. To him belongs the U-j tomb found in the royal cemetery of Abydos where Thinite kings were buried.

Earlier names have been identified as possible kings, but it's not certain that these don't represent gods rather than kings, or even place names. Possibly the earliest of these in sequence is referred to as 'Oryx Standard'.

If names only known by their graphic representation are discounted, the earliest-known male name is that of Iry-Hor, a pre-dynastic king of Upper Egypt, who reigned in the early 32nd century BCE.

The earliest names of non-royal individuals may be some of those recorded on Sumerian clay tablets, such as the slave-owner Gal-Sal and his two slaves Enpap-x and Sukkalgir (3200–3100 BCE).

Personal name (female)

The earliest woman in history whose name is known is Neithhotep, consort of Narmer, First Dynasty pharaoh of Egypt, and mother to pharaoh Hor-Aha. She lived around the late 32nd century BCE.

 

Dynasty 00; Raffaele; Odenwald

Written records

Writing

In 2003 tortoise shells were discovered in China, which had symbols carved onto them in what is now known as Jiahu Script. Radiocarbon dating suggests they date from 8600–8200 Before Present. The shells were found buried with human remains, in 24 Neolithic graves unearthed at Jiahu, Henan province, northern China. According to some archaeologists, the writing on the shells had similarities to the 2nd millennium BCE Oracle bone script. However, it's not yet clear that they can definitely be regarded as writing. A 2003 report interpreted them "not as writing itself, but as features of a lengthy period of sign-use which led eventually to a fully-fledged system of writing." [Rincon; Li, X; Harbottle, Garman; Zhang Juzhong; Wang Changsui (2003). 'The earliest writing? Sign use in the seventh millennium BC at Jiahu, Henan Province, China'. Archaeology 77. pp31–44]

 

photo of the Jiahu tortoiseshells

The Jiahu tortoiseshells

 

Sumerian cuneiform script and Egyptian hieroglyphs are generally considered the earliest writing systems, cuneiform developing slightly earlier, as it is believed to have influenced the Egyptians. The first documents written in the Sumerian language, using proto-cuneiform script, date from about 5000 BP. They were clay tablets found in the 1920s and 1980s at Jemdet Nasr, in Iraq. All the tablets, with transliterations, may be viewed at the CDLI List of Found Texts.

But the very earliest texts are in a language not certainly identified, and have only been found in Uruk itself, suggesting the script itself may have originated there.

photo of cuneiform tablets

Uruk tablet CDLI no P000247

 

Letter

This clay tablet, dating from around 2400 BCE, was found in Telloh (ancient Girsu). It is a letter sent by the high-priest Lu’enna to the king of Lagash (maybe Urukagina), informing him of his son's death in combat.

photo of cuneiform letter on a clay tablet

Girsu tablet CDLI no P247594; accession no AO 4238, The Louvre—Department of Oriental Antiquities, Richelieu, ground floor, room 1a

Autograph signature

See above.

 

 

Diary

The earliest writing recognised as a diary was probably the record made by the Chinese philosopher and writer 李翱 (Li Ao, 772–841) of the journey made by himself and his pregnant wife from Luoyang to Guangzhou over nine months in 809.

The earliest diary printed in English runs from 838 to 848, and was written by Ennin—better known in Japan as 慈覺大師 (Jikaku Daishi, 793–864)—a Japanese Buddhist monk. Written in Chinese as 入唐求法巡礼行記 (Nittō Guhō Junrei Kōki), it is the personal diary he kept while on a pilgrimage to China in search of learning and enlightenment. It is also the earliest eyewitness account of everyday life in China. An English translation was published in New York by Edwin O. Reischauer in 1955, as Ennin's Diary; The Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law translated from the Chinese.

The earliest surviving diary actually written in English is that of an anonymous diplomat known only as 'One of the Suite of Thomas Beckington', which records his embassy to France to arrange the marriage of King Henry VI and a daughter of the count of Armagnac, from June 1442 to the following January.

[Christopher Handley (2002) An Annotated Bibliography of Diaries Printed in English, 2nd edition]

The earliest known diary arranged in order of date, like modern diaries, is the autograph fragment by Ibn Banna (1005–1079), of which 16 folios survive, covering 13 months, from August 1068 to September 1069. It is held in the Al-Assad in Damascus, the national library of Syria. [Makdisi]

 

Autobiography

The earliest surviving autobiography is that of the Greek-speaking Sophist rhetorician Libanius (c. 314 – c. 394 CE). His Oration I is an autobiographical narrative, first written in 374 and revised throughout his life, a scholar's account that ends as an old exile's private journal.

A. F. Norman, Libanius. Autobiography and Selected Letters, was published in 1993 in two Loeb Classical Library volumes, nos 478 & 479, by the Harvard University Press.
 

 

Note: this page, and the companion page on Earliest human traces, entered my mind as in some way necessary adjuncts to my series of pages on Firsts in the recording of sight and sound. As will be very apparent, this and the Traces page rely heavily on Internet-based research, so should not be regarded as authoritative in any way. I am, as ever, very happy to accept corrections.

 

 

This page was last revised on 2017-01-05.

 

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