Stone in South African cave boasts oldest-known human drawing

Craig Foster via AP

An abstract drawing from the 73,000-year-old levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa . It predates the previous oldest-known drawings by at least 30,000 years.

The drawing itself was placed on a flake of silcrete, which is a mineral that results from the mixture of sand and gravel, and with ocher being used to create and color the tiny scratches on the flake, the sharp red lines that were left behind by ancient Homo sapiens in South Africa can still be seen today.

The Conversation Africa asked Professor Christopher Henshilwood, who leads the team that made the discovery, about its significance.

During the Middle Stone Age, early humans used ochre for things other than drawing, including as an additive to glue and as a sunscreen, according to the researchers.

The ancient drawing includes six parallel lines that are crossed by three slightly curved lines, the researchers said.

"The abrupt termination of all lines on the fragment edges indicates that the pattern originally extended over a larger surface".

The outside of Blombos Cave, where the drawing was discovered.

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While scientists have found older engravings around the world, research published on Wednesday in the journal Nature says the lines on this stone mark the first abstract drawing.

It looks a bit like a hashtag, but it's 73,000 years old. "The pattern was probably more complex and structured in its entirety than in this truncated form", Henshilwood explained. Archaeologists believe that caves such as these would have given humans a much-needed rest from their daily routines and other activities before they set back out again to continue hunting and gathering.

"It's also evidence of early humans" ability to store information outside of the human brain", he said. These finds demonstrate that the first Homo sapiens in this region of Africa used different techniques to produce similar signs on different materials, which supports the hypothesis that these markings served a symbolic function.

He told Reuters that while the team would be "hesitant to call it art", it nearly definitely had "some meaning to the maker".

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.

Similar patterns are engraved in other artifacts from the cave, and the hashtag design was produced widely over the past 100,000 years in rock art and paintings, he said. The oldest known engraving, for instance, is another piece of abstract art: a zigzag line that Homo erectus carved onto a shell 540,000 years ago in Indonesia, Live Science previously reported.

The fragment of silicate, about 4cm by 1cm, was discovered in 2011 but researchers have only now become confident that the pattern on its surface was deliberately created.

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