An­cient art discovered

The dis­cov­ery of the ear­li­est known ex­am­ple of art adds to the the­ory that hu­man moder­nity rose out of Africa


THE dis­cov­ery of an arte­fact in the south­ern Cape that is be­lieved to be the ear­li­est ev­i­dence of a draw­ing pre­dates pre­vi­ously found draw­ings from Europe and south-east Asia by a least 30 000 years and, ac­cord­ing to re­searchers, this pro­vides fur­ther ev­i­dence that the cra­dle of hu­mankind’s cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment, which birthed art, lies in Africa.

The arte­fact was found in the Blom­bos Cave in the south­ern Cape in 2013. But it took an­other five years and some hard­core foren­sic test­ing be­fore re­searchers con­cluded that the six lines on the piece of grind­stone, or sil­crete flake, were in­ten­tion­ally placed there by hu­man hand.

The team’s dis­cov­ery and find­ings were an­nounced on Wed­nes­day in the jour­nal Na­ture.

Be­fore this dis­cov­ery, Palae­olithic ar­chae­ol­o­gists were for a long time con­vinced that un­am­bigu­ous sym­bols first ap­peared when Homo sapi­ens en­tered Europe about 40 000 years ago and later re­placed lo­cal Ne­an­derthals,” said Pro­fes­sor Christo­pher Hen­shilwood, a re­searcher at both Wits and Ber­gen uni­ver­si­ties and the lead au­thor on the pa­per, in a state­ment.

“Re­cent ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies in Africa, Europe and Asia, in which mem­bers of our team have of­ten par­tic­i­pated, sup­port a much ear­lier emer­gence for the pro­duc­tion and use of sym­bols.”

It was ar­chae­ol­o­gist Dr Luca Pol­larolo, an hon­orary re­search fel­low at Wits Univer­sity, who hap­pened across the dis­cov­ery while painstak­ingly sift­ing through thou­sands of flakes that had been ex­ca­vated from Blom­bos Cave.

Re­al­is­ing that they might have some­thing, the team turned to Pro­fes­sor Francesco d’Er­rico of the Pacea lab of the Univer­sity of Bordeaux, France, to see if he could work out if the marks were part of the ma­trix of the rock or if they were in fact hu­man-made.

D’Er­rico’s team ex­am­ined the piece by us­ing Ra­man spec­troscopy and an elec­tron mi­cro­scope. They were able to con­firm that the lines had been ap­plied to the stone.

They also discovered that the grind­stone was ini­tially used to grind ochre.

The team then ex­per­i­mented on how the ochre could have been drawn onto the rock.

They tried dif­fer­ent paint­ing and draw­ing tech­niques and con­cluded that the 73 000-year-old piece was made with an ochre crayon that had a tip that was be­tween one and three mil­lime­tres thick — about the size of a mod­ern pen­cil.

The lines, they discovered, abruptly end at the edge of the flake, sug­gest­ing that the pat­tern may have ex­tended over a larger sur­face.

These are not the first ex­am­ples of art to have been found at the Blom­bos site. In 2002, Hen­shilwood and his team an­nounced the dis­cov­ery of a piece of ochre that had been etched with lines, sim­i­lar to those drawn on the piece of grind­stone.

The ochre, which was dated to be­tween 70 000 and 100 000 years old, was be­lieved at the time to be the ear­li­est known ex­am­ple of art.

Since then, the dis­cov­ery of a fresh­wa­ter shell in Trinil, Java, with an etched zig-zag pat­tern on it, has pushed back the date of the ear­li­est known en­grav­ing to 540 000 years ago. But it is sus­pected that this pat­tern was made by a hu­man fore­bear, Homo erec­tus.

Be­sides etched ochre, ar­chae­ol­o­gists have found shell beads cov­ered in ochre and so­phis­ti­cated leaf-shaped stone spear points at Blom­bos. The dis­cov­ery of the ear­li­est known ex­am­ple of a draw­ing, said Hen­shilwood, adds the “fourth leg chair” to hu­man moder­nity aris­ing in Africa.

“The big mes­sage here is that Africa is the birth­place of mod­ern hu­mans,” he said.

Hen­shilwood sug­gested that Blom­bos Cave’s lo­ca­tion on the coast might have had a part to play in why its in­hab­i­tants be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with early forms of ex­pres­sion.

“Peo­ple liv­ing on the coast­line had ac­cess to a lot of food; you have hippo, kudu, bon­te­bok and what they can get from the sea,” he said.

“They don’t have to scav­enge around for food any more, so they have a lot of time on their hands.”

The use of sym­bols is seen in ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites right along the West Coast of South Africa, he added. Many of these sym­bols are the criss­cross pat­terns found in Blom­bos and this, he sug­gested, shows that hu­mans were cre­at­ing so­cial net­works re­lated to sym­bols.

Pro­fes­sor Lyn Wadley of Wits Univer­sity, how­ever, is cau­tious of the team’s find­ings. “It would not be a sur­prise to find that peo­ple at Blom­bos were able to draw 73 000 years ago; it is per­fectly fea­si­ble. Yet, de­spite the au­thors’ ex­ten­sive use of sci­en­tific method­ol­ogy to recre­ate the mark­ings on the flake, and de­spite the in­dis­putable pres­ence of other re­mark­able arte­facts at Blom­bos, I am not con­vinced of in­ten­tional ‘draw­ing’ on the flake based on the present ev­i­dence,” she said.

Her con­cern is that the grind­stone was once used to grind ochre, and this might have had an in­flu­ence on the re­sults of the ex­per­i­ments.

“Given the flake’s his­tory, I should there­fore like to see ad­di­tional ex­per­i­ments us­ing, for ex­am­ple, ground sur­faces and pieces of ochre, but repli­cat­ing ac­tiv­i­ties other than draw­ing. Since the orig­i­nal hy­poth­e­sis is that draw­ing rather than any other ac­tiv­ity is rep­re­sented, there is cir­cu­lar­ity in the an­a­lyt­i­cal process that ex­per­i­ments only with draw­ing,” she added.

“If, af­ter per­form­ing a va­ri­ety of ac­tiv­i­ties with grind­stones, grind­stone frag­ments and pieces of ochre, the only marks to match the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ones are from draw­ing with an ochre crayon, then I should be con­vinced that the present in­ter­pre­ta­tion is the most likely one.”

D’Er­rico agreed that more ex­per­i­ment­ing needs to be done but stands by his find­ings. “A num­ber of facts go against the ac­ci­den­tal in­ter­pre­ta­tion. All the lines are ex­tremely thin and have a con­stant width. None of the flakes bear­ing traces of ochre from other sites, in­ter­preted as residue left by ham­mers made of ochre, show a sim­i­lar pat­tern,” he said.

But the search for more of the early draw­ings is to con­tinue. Hen­shilwood is as­sem­bling a mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary team that will in­clude cli­ma­tol­o­gists and even psy­chol­o­gists that will be ex­am­in­ing that pe­riod in the past when hu­mans be­gan to act and think more like us. “We will be go­ing back, and maybe we will find the rest of the sil­crete flake,” said Hen­shilwood. — Daily Mav­er­ick.


The out­side of Blom­bos Cave in the south­ern Cape.


Blom­bos Cave draw­ing with ochre pen­cil on sil­crete stone.

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