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The World's Oldest Human Drawing Has Been Discovered In A Cave In South Africa

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Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

clockSep 12 2018, 18:00 UTC

You can see the cross-hatched drawing in red paint here. Craig Foster

Archaeologists have made an incredible finding of a human drawing that dates back more than 70,000 years, making it the oldest human drawing ever discovered.

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The finding, published in Nature, was made in Blombos Cave, which is located on the southern coast of South Africa. The research was led by Professor Christopher Henshilwood from the University of Bergen in Norway. It’s thought this cave was used temporarily by hunter-gatherers for stays of a week or two long ago.

The “drawing” consisted of a cross-hatched pattern made of six lines crossed with three lines on a silcrete flake. As such, it was described as a Stone Age “hashtag”. It looks like the pattern was originally much larger, as the lines abruptly end, and may have been more complex. The team think it was made with a pointed ochre crayon, with a tip 1 to 3 millimeters wide.

“It is definitely an abstract design and it almost certainly had some meaning to the maker,” Professor Henshilwood told IFLScience. “It is also evidence of the ability of early humans to store information outside of the human brain.”

This particular cave plays host to a number of human artifacts dating back to between 70,000 and 100,000 years. This includes a “tool kit” with two shells inside, filled with an ochre-rich substance similar to a red paint, which proves our ancestors knew how to make paint up to 100,000 years ago.

What Blombos Cave looks like inside. Magnus M. Haaland

In their paper the researchers said this discovery “pre-dates the earliest previously known abstract and figurative drawings by at least 30,000 years.” They used chemical and microscopic analyses to confirm that it had been created by a human hand, demonstrating that Homo sapiens in southern Africa were behaviourally modern.

“The discovery… demonstrates that drawing was part of the behavioural repertoire of populations of early Homo sapiens in southern Africa,” the authors wrote. “It demonstrates their ability to apply similar graphic designs on various media using different techniques.”

Other discoveries at Blombos Cave had shown that humans there could produce paint (and use a brush to paint), engrave abstract designs, and create shell beads. This latest discovery was described as a “fourth leg to the table” by Professor Henshilwood, proving they had the ability to draw.

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It’s a very exciting finding, and one that gives us a fascinating insight into the capabilities of early humans. We may never know the exact meaning of this drawing but we do know it was, to someone at least, a very primitive work of art.


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