Archaeologists find the world’s oldest drawing

September 13, 2018 - 06:00
Article from University of Bergen

The hashtag-like drawing was made 73,000 years ago and depicts an ochre red cross-hatched pattern.

Norwegian archeologists have discovered the earliest known drawing in a cave in South Africa. 

“The drawing adds a completely new dimension to our ability to understand when early humans became like us," says Christopher Henshilwood, Professor at the University of Bergen (UiB) and Director of Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour (SapienCE), a Centre of Excellence at UiB. He is the lead author on the new study, which is published in Nature.

The drawing was made 73,000 years ago, and depicts an ochre red cross-hatch pattern.

The discovery demonstrates that early Homo sapiens in southern Africa had developed a number of techniques to produce such graphic designs at least 30,000 years earlier than archeologists had thought, he says. 

Discovered by chance

The drawing was excavated from Blombos Cave, when Christopher Henshilwood and Karen van Niekerk, Principal Investigator at the SapienCE, were excavating the 73,000-year-old layer in the cave.

A dusty batch of stone chips was shipped to the Wits University satellite laboratory in Cape Town to be cleaned and examined. Here, archaeologist Dr Luca Pollarolo noticed a pattern made of lines on a small silcrete flake among the hundrerds of similar flakes he was examining.

“The discovery was obviously very exciting for all of us! You can say, it was one of those unexpected days, which any archaeologist lives for”, Henshilwood and van Niekerk say with a smile. 

The silcrete was designated sample number L13.  Even though they were quite certain of what they had (a drawing) they needed to find the best methodology to decipher whether it was indeed a drawing.

The research journey

Many questions needed answers. Were the lines on the stone natural, a part of the matrix of the rock, or were they, perhaps, made by humans living in Blombos Cave 73,000 years ago? 

“Our first step was to take the silcrete stone to our colleague Francesco d’Errico at the CNRS‐PACEA lab of the University of Bordeaux in France, also part of the SapienCE team at the University of Bergen. Together we agreed on a systematic approach to answering the questions that the small, but interesting L13 had challenged us with.”

An important part of the investigation was to carefully examine and photograph the rock under a microscope to establish whether the lines were already part of the stone, or if they had been applied to the stone intentionally. They also used sophisticated instruments to establish that the lines were ochre.

Years of inquiries led to the conclusion that the cross-hatched drawing had been made with a pointed ochre crayon with a tip around 1 to 3 millimetres in width. Further, the abrupt termination of the lines at the edge of the stone also suggests that the pattern originally extended over a larger surface, and may have been more complex in its entirety.

The analysis also confirmed that the lines were indeed applied to the stone, and consisted of a haematite rich powder, commonly referred to as ochre, 73,000 years ago, and makes the drawing on the Blombos silcrete stone the oldest drawing know drawing made by Homo sapiens. 

Early symbolic behavior

What can this drawing tell us about our human history?

"Before this discovery, Palaeolithic archaeologists had for a long time been convinced that unambiguous symbols first appeared when Homo sapiens entered Europe, 40,000 years ago, and replaced local Neanderthals. Recent archaeological discoveries in Africa, Europe and Asia, in which members of our team have often participated, support a much earlier emergence for the production and use of symbols," says Henshilwood.

According to him, the abstract drawing found in Blombos Cave, is yet more proof that symbolic behavior started in Africa and not in Europe as first thought.

Symbols makes us human

Why is symbolic behavior so important when we talk about understanding early human behavior?

“Symbols are an inherent part of our humanity. We express symbols every day. They can be inscribed on our bodies in the form of tattoos and scarifications or cover them through the application of particular clothing, ornaments and the way we dress our hair. We use symbols every day and they exist in everything we do.  Language, writing, mathematics, religion, laws could not possibly exist without the typically human capacity to master the creation and transmission of symbols and our ability to embody them in material culture," says d’Errico.

“Substantial progress has been made in understanding how our brain perceives and processes different categories of symbols, but our knowledge on how and when symbols permanently permeated the culture of our ancestors is still imprecise and speculative,” he says.

The drawing fits the bigger picture

The archaeological layer in which the Blombos drawing was discovered also yielded other indicators of symbolic thinking, such as shell beads covered with ochre, and, more importantly, pieces of ochres engraved with abstract patterns. Some of these engravings closely resemble the one drawn on the silcrete stone.

In older layers at Blombos Cave, dated at 100,000 years, they also discovered a complete toolkit consisting of two abalone shells filled with an ochre rich substance, a red paint, and all the artefacts associated with making it including seal bone used to add fat to the mixture. This discovery proves that our early ancestors could also make paint by 100,000 years.

“All these findings demonstrates that early Homo sapiens in the southern Cape used different techniques to produce similar signs on different media. This observation supports the hypothesis that these signs were symbolic in nature and represented an inherent aspect of the world of these African Homo sapiens, the ancestors of all of us today,” says Henshilwood.

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This article was originaly published by UiB.

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Study Facts:

Blombos Cave has been excavated by Henshilwood and van Niekerk, since 1991, and contains material dating from 100,000 to 70,000 years ago, a time period referred to as the Middle Stone Age, as well as younger, Later Stone Age material dating from 2,000 to 300 years ago.

Blombos Cave, is located on the southern coast of South Africa, 300 kilometres east of Cape Town, and contains some of the earliest known evidence of behaviourally modern human cultural activity.

Blombos Cave  has provided  an abundance of early human artefacts dated to between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago, including shell beads, engraved pieces of ochre and tools manufactured by pressure flaking  pre-heated silicrete  and the earliest evidence for both the use of containers, abalone shells, to store a red, ochre and fat rich paint made  100,000 years ago

The abstract drawing, which consists of three red lines cross-hatched with six separate line, predates previous drawing from Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia by at least 30,000 years.

Blombos Cave has been excavated by Henshilwood and van Niekerk, since 1991, and contains material dating from 100,000 to 70,000 years ago, a time period referred to as the Middle Stone Age, as well as younger, Later Stone Age material dating from 2,000 to 300 years ago.

Blombos Cave

Blombos Cave, is located on the southern coast of South Africa, 300 kilometres east of Cape Town, and contains some of the earliest known evidence of behaviourally modern human cultural activity.

Blombos Cave  has provided  an abundance of early human artefacts dated to between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago, including shell beads, engraved pieces of ochre and tools manufactured by pressure flaking  pre-heated silicrete  and the earliest evidence for both the use of containers, abalone shells, to store a red, ochre and fat rich paint made  100,000 years ago.

The abstract drawing, which consists of three red lines cross-hatched with six separate line, predates previous drawing from Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia by at least 30,000 years.

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