New find reveals SA is home to world's oldest artwork

13 September, 2018, 14:33 | Author: Kelly Sanders
  • Craig Foster via AP

A drawing made with ochre pigment on silcrete stone, found in the Blombos cave east of Cape Town, South Africa.

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

As is so often the case with archaeological discoveries, the scientists excavating the cave did not immediately spot the Stone Age hashtag, and it ended up in a bucket of seemingly insignificant material destined for further scrutiny in the lab.

It consists of a set of six straight sub-parallel lines crossed obliquely by three slightly curved lines.

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

This has shifted our thinking about when human ancestors started drawing. The earliest known drawing in history - a red, cross-hatched pattern - has been unearthed in South Africa.

For example, the oldest known engraving - a zigzag etched on a 540,000-year-old shell - was discovered in Trinil in Java; and 64,000-year-old paintings made by Neanderthals were recently found in caves in the Iberian Peninsula.

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. So the newly found sketch is probably not just a collection of random scratchings.

"We would be hesitant to call it art".

"It nearly certainly had some meaning to the maker, and probably formed a part of the common symbolic system understood by other people in this group", he said. It's also evidence of early humans' ability to store information outside of the human brain. "Is that art? Who's going to tell you it's art or not?"

"We can reconstruct it and put everything back digitally", says Karen van Niekerk, principal investigator at Bergen University's Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour.

Fortunately for archaeologists, around 70,000 years ago Blombos Cave became closed, which kept the precious artifacts inside of it safe from the world outside. It was used as a temporary living site by hunter gatherer groups; they'd spend a week or two there at a time before moving on.

Numerous other artefacts were found in Blombos Cave, including beads covered in red ochreand a paint-making kit dating back around 100,000 years. It is at least 30,000 years older than any other known drawing, researchers say in a report released Wednesday by the journal Nature.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.


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