Oldest known human drawing found in South African cave

A diagram of the drawing version shows how the lines might have extended beyond the current edges of the stone

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.

Study co-researcher Luca Pollarolo, a technical assistant in anthropology and African archaeology at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, made the actual discovery in 2015, when he was going through sediment samples in the lab, which excavators had painstakingly "removed millimeter by millimeter" from the cave, Henshilwood said.

"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.

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

The hashtag-like drawing was dated from the age of the sedimentary layer in which it was found, using a technique called optically stimulated luminescence.

The researchers, led by Christopher Henshilwood and Francesco d'Errico, both from the University of Bergen in Norway, also engaged in some experimental archaeology, recreating the methods used to create the early drawing.

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

Looking a little bit like a hashtag, the drawing is believed to be around 73,000 years old.

The silcrete fragment came from a 73,000-year-old archaeological stratum and bears a crosshatched pattern made up of nine fine lines. "The pattern was probably more complex and structured in its entirety than in this truncated form", Henshilwood explained. "It demonstrates their ability to apply similar graphic designs on various media using [a] different technique".

This has shifted our thinking about when human ancestors started drawing. "We are looking at people whose brains were wired in quite similar ways to ours".

"They also had syntactic language - essential for conveying symbolic meaning within and across groups of hunter gatherers who were present in southern Africa at that time".

Blombos Cave is situated 50 m from the Indian Ocean, elevated at 35 m above sea level and 300 km east of Cape Town. Numerous artefacts found in the cave, such as bone awls, spear points, shell beads, and engraved pieces of ochre, have been dated to between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago. Thus, with the Neanderthal art in mind, the drawing found at Blombos Cave pre-dates the oldest known drawing by 9000 years, and not 30,000 years as suggested by the authors. Engraved ochre slabs with various designs, including cross-hatched patterns, were also found in these older layers. 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.

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