The use of symbols via engravings has a long history that possibly goes beyond half a million years, as suggested by shell found in Java, dated from around 540,000 years ago. But what about the actual prehistoric drawings made by our ancestors? Well, conventional theory dictates that the art of drawing is relatively ‘new’, with the first known specimens dating from the Upper Paleolithic Age, around 30,000-40,000 years ago. However, a recent discovery of a rock fragment in South Africa might just push back this accepted time frame. To that end, an excavation conducted at the country’s Blombos Cave yielded a particular rock flaunting intentional strokes of an ocher pencil (on its surface). The fragment came from a 73,000-year-old archaeological stratum. In other words, this (possible) abstract drawing is at least 30,000 years older than the previous earliest known drawing made by humans.
The Blombos Cave excavation and the related assessment project involves members from the CNRS, University of Bordeaux, Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, and the French Ministry of Culture, organized into two research units – PACEA and TRACES. Interestingly enough, it should be noted that this site does boast its fair share of man-made prehistoric objects dating from the Middle Stone Age (100,000-70,000 years ago). This does include ocher stone specimens bearing engravings with crosshatch motifs (as pictured above). However, back in 2011, researchers parsing through a stone debris inside the cave came across the aforementioned fragment of a siliceous rock. This particular specimen, instead of having engravings, displayed a ‘drawn’ design of intersecting lines at small angles. The CNRS press release explains the consequent analysis of the potential drawing –
Microscopic and chemical analyses revealed the pattern’s reddish lines to be composed of iron-rich ocher, which could only have been applied, since iron oxide does not occur naturally in silcrete. So were the lines a fluke or traced on purpose? The researchers sought an answer by attempting to experimentally reproduce the lines via a range of techniques: using pieces of ocher with either pointed or linear edges to mark strokes on silcrete flakes, or else applying ocher powder mixed with water, at varying degrees of dilution, to silcrete-flake surfaces with wooden-stick brushes. Then, once experimental samples were obtained, a series of microscopy, chemical and tribology (or friction-based) analyses were conducted to compare the motif on the original flake and those produced by the researchers.
Results pointed in one clear direction: the crosshatched lines were deliberately drawn by a pointed ocher crayon—sometimes tracing single strokes, at other times multiple strokes—on a surface smoothed by ancient grinding activity, the flake manifestly detached from a grindstone used to process ocher. Qualifying thus as a drawing, the crosshatch pattern takes over the title of the world’s oldest such work, adding a non-negligible 30,000 years to the previous tally.
Francesco d’Errico, an archaeologist from the PACEA, talked about how the drawing of patterns on the surface suggests a level of cognitive thinking and symbolism. And while it might be difficult to decipher their core meaning, d’Errico notes how neuroscience can delve deeper into the minds of our ancestors and their understanding of symbolic or abstract art –
The observation that Early Homo sapiens in the southern Cape used different techniques to produce similar signs on different media supports the hypothesis that these signs were symbolic in nature and represented an inherent aspect of their spiritual world. [Hence researchers, along with neuroscientists, are] currently investigating the emergence of symbolic practices in Kenya, China and the Ukraine in collaboration with colleagues from these countries and other European institutions.
The study was originally published in the journal Nature.