New find reveals SA is home to world's oldest artwork
Crayon lines found in southern Cape cave, the oldest known drawing by humans, point to evidence of symbolic thinking
Three lines cross-hatched with six lines on a scrap of rock have cemented an SA cave’s place in early human history.
The red lines were drawn with an ochre crayon about 73,000 years ago and have been found on a smooth silcrete flake unearthed in the Blombos Cave in the southern Cape.
The cave, in the Blombosfontein Nature Reserve 300km east of Cape Town, has played a central role in providing information about the behavioural evolution of anatomically modern humans since it was discovered in 1991 by Professor Christopher Henshilwood of Wits University.
The new discovery, reported on Wednesday, September 12 in Nature, is the earliest known drawing by humans, predating previous drawings from Africa, Europe and southeast Asia by at least 30,000 years.
Similar patterns had been found on other materials in the cave, said Henshilwood, indicating that the drawings were symbolic and represented a behaviourally modern aspect of the Homo sapiens that created it.
“Before this discovery, Palaeolithic archaeologists have for a long time been convinced that unambiguous symbols first appeared when Homo sapiens entered Europe, about 40,000 years ago, and later replaced local Neanderthals,” said Henshilwood.
“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.”
The drawing on silcrete – a hard stone also used for tools – was found by archaeologist Dr Luca Pollarolo, an honorary research fellow at Wits, as he sifted through thousands of similar flakes from Blombos Cave.
Realising the lines were unusual, the archaeology team set out to answer the questions they posed: Were they natural? Did humans make them? If they did, how and why?
Under the guidance of Professor Francesco d’Errico at the University of Bordeaux in France, the team examined the silcrete and the lines under a microscope, an electron microscope and a spectroscope.
After confirming the lines were applied to the stone, the team experimented with artistic techniques and found the drawings were made with an ochre crayon that had a tip between 1mm and 3mm thick.
For the ages ...
Blombos, near Still Bay, contains material dating from 100,000 to 70,000 years ago, a period referred to as the Middle Stone Age, as well as younger, Later Stone Age material dating from 2,000 to 300 years ago.
The abrupt termination of the lines at the edge of the flake suggested the pattern originally extended over a larger surface, and may have been more complex.
A statement from Wits said the earliest known engraving, a zig-zag pattern, was incised on a freshwater shell from Trinil, Java, found in layers dated to 540,000 years ago.
“A recent article has proposed that painted representations in three caves of the Iberian Peninsula were 64,000 years old and therefore produced by Neanderthals. This makes the drawing on the Blombos silcrete flake the oldest drawing by Homo sapiens ever found,” said the statement.
Symbols such as tattoos, scars, clothing, ornaments and hairstyles were an inherent part of our humanity, said Henshilwood.
Language, writing, mathematics, religion and laws could not exist without symbols and humans’ ability to embody them in material culture, but knowledge of how and when symbols permanently permeated our ancestors’ culture was imprecise and speculative, he said.
This is where Blombos Cave was playing a vital role, as it had also yielded other evidence of symbolic thinking, such as shell beads covered with ochre and pieces of ochre engraved with abstract patterns — some of which resemble the one drawn on the silcrete flake.
Henshilwood said: “This 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 behaviourally modern world of these African Homo sapiens, the ancestors of all of us today.”