Published: Fri, September 14, 2018
Research | By Jody Lindsey

Oldest known drawing found in Africa

Some 73,000 years ago in what is now South Africa, an early human used a red ochre crayon to draw a cross-hatched pattern onto a smooth flake, according to new research published this week.

In a new study that was just published today, a team of global archaeologists have hailed the discovery in Blombos Cave in South Africa of a 73,000-year-old stone flake that was colored by ocher, calling it the world's first art.

Study co-researcher Luca Pollarolo, a technical assistant in anthropology and African archaeology at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, made the actual discovery in 2015, when he was going through sediment samples in the lab, which excavators had painstakingly "removed millimeter by millimeter" from the cave, Henshilwood said.

It's unclear what the crisscrossed lines mean, but similar designs have been found at other early human sites in South Africa, Australia and France, said study senior researcher Christopher Henshilwood, director of the Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour at the University of Bergen in Norway.

Among the artefacts was a small flake of silicate rock, onto which a three-by-six line cross-hatched pattern had been intentionally drawn in red ochre.

Because older ochre has been found at Blombos Cave, the archaeologists are hopeful that even older drawings will be found, some possibly as ancient as 100,000 years.

While archaeologists have found older engravings around the world, including one in Java that is at least half-a-million years old, the "hashtag" is the oldest-known drawing and not just a collection of random scratching.

The silcrete fragment came from a 73,000-year-old archaeological stratum and bears a crosshatched pattern made up of nine fine lines.

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The team first confirmed that the lines were ochre, and conducted a series of experiments to figure out how the drawing was made. "It's also evidence of early humans' ability to store information outside of the human brain", he said.

It shows early humans used different techniques to produce similar signs on different surfaces.

Does it tell us anything else about the people who made it?

"They also had syntactic language - essential for conveying symbolic meaning within and across groups of hunter gatherers who were present in southern Africa at that time".

Blombos Cave, where the stone flake was found, sits 185 miles away from Cape Town and sits inside a cliff that looks out over the Indian Ocean. These include shell beads covered with ochre and, more importantly, pieces of ochres engraved with abstract patterns.

The silcrete flake was found in a layer of sediment previously dated to 73,000 years old, and in a cave that has previously been found to contain ochre pieces.

In fact, the 73,000-year-old ocher drawing is significantly older than the spectacular cave art that has been found in Spain and Indonesia, and would have been created almost 30,000 years before Homo sapiens were drawing pictures of wild animals and other objects in these European caves.

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