#Ancient? Crisscrossed lines called world's oldest drawing

Christopher Davidson
September 14, 2018

This undated photo provided by Craig Foster in September 2018 shows a drawing made with ochre pigment on silcrete stone, found in the Blombos Cave east of Cape Town, South Africa.

"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 Prof Henshilwood.

"It seems to be part of the human repertoire of producing signs", Henshilwood told Live Science.

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, Henshilwood said.

Wits University Archaeologist Dr Luca Pollarolo discovered the drawing on a smooth silcrete flake.

The flake was covered with ash and dirt, but a quick wash revealed the red crosshatch lines, Henshilwood noted.

It consists of a set of six straight sub-parallel lines crossed obliquely by three slightly curved lines. It predates the previous oldest-known drawings by at least 30,000 years.

The exercise also allowed the researchers to discern which lines were created with a single stroke, which required multiple strokes, and the direction the strokes were made in. So, they reached out to study co-researcher Francesco d'Errico, a professor at the University of Bordeaux, who helped them photograph the artifact and determine that the lines had been applied to the rock by hand.

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The research team members even tried making their own designs with ochre on similar pieces of stone.

To prove that the red lines were a bona fide drawing, and not the result of natural processes, the researchers analysed the marks with optical and electron microscopes.

Paul Bahn, author of Archaeology: The Essential Guide to Our Human Past, said this particular discovery doesn't really change our understanding of human history, though it's a welcome new piece of evidence. It was drawn by hunter-gatherers who periodically dwelled in the cave overlooking the Indian Ocean. Given their proficient hunting skills, "they probably had a lot of free time to sit around the fire and talk and make things like jewelry", he said.

This has shifted our thinking about when human ancestors started drawing. For example, a zig-zag pattern etched onto a shell in Trinil Java has been dated to 540,000 years ago (this discovery pre-dates Homo sapiens, so it was likely made by Homo erectus).

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

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.

"We would be hesitant to call it art".

The findings have been published in the scientific journal Nature.

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