A cross-hatched pattern drawn with an ochre crayon on a small piece of siliceous rock (silcrete) is 73,000 years old. It pre-dates the earliest previously known abstract drawings by at least 30,000 years and demonstrates the ability of early Homo sapiens to produce graphic designs on various media using different techniques. The find is described in a paper published this week in the journal Nature.
Although abstract and figurative representations are generally considered conclusive indicators of the use of symbols, assessing the symbolic dimension of the earliest possible graphisms is tricky.
Symbols are an inherent part of humanity. They can be inscribed on our bodies in the form of tattoos and scarifications or cover them through the application of particular clothing, ornaments and the way we dress our hair.
Language, writing, mathematics, religion, laws could not possibly exist without the typically human capacity to master the creation and transmission of symbols and our ability to embody them in material culture.
Substantial progress has been made in understanding how our brain perceives and processes different categories of symbols, but our knowledge on how and when symbols permanently permeated the culture of our ancestors is still imprecise and speculative.
“Before our discovery, 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 Professor Christopher Henshilwood, from the University of Bergen, Norway, and the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.
“Recent archaeological discoveries in Africa, Europe and Asia support a much earlier emergence for the production and use of symbols.”
Professor Henshilwood and colleagues found the silcrete flake with the 73,000-year-old drawing in Blombos Cave, South Africa.
“Blombos Cave is situated on the southern Cape coast, about 300 km east of Cape Town,” they said.
“The site contains well-stratified Middle Stone Age deposits dating to between 100,000 and 72,000 years ago.”
According to the team, the Blombos drawing consists of three red lines cross-hatched with six separate lines.
“Realizing that the lines on the flake were unlike anything that we had come across from the cave before, we set out to answer the questions it posed,” the archaeologists explained.
“Were these lines natural, or a part of the matrix of the rock? Were they, perhaps, made by humans living in Blombos Cave 73 000 years ago? If humans made the lines, how did they make them, and why?”
“We examined and photographed the piece under a microscope to establish whether the lines were part of the stone or whether it was applied to it.”
“We also examined it by using RAMAN spectroscopy and an electron microscope.”
“After confirming the lines were applied to the stone, we experimented with various paint and drawing techniques and found that the drawings were made with an ochre crayon, with a tip of between 1 and 3 mm thick.”
“Further, the abrupt termination of the lines at the edge of the flake also suggested that the pattern originally extended over a larger surface, and may have been more complex in its entirety.”
The archaeological layer in which the Blombos drawing was found also yielded other indicators of symbolic thinking, such as shell beads covered with ochre, and, more importantly, pieces of ochre engraved with abstract patterns.
Some of these engravings closely resemble the one drawn on the silcrete flake.
“This demonstrates that early Homo sapiens in the southern Cape used different techniques to produce similar signs on different media,” Professor Henshilwood said.
“This observation supports the hypothesis that these signs were symbolic in nature and represented an inherent aspect of the behaviorally modern world of these African Homo sapiens, the ancestors of all of us today.”
Christopher S. Henshilwood et al. An abstract drawing from the 73,000-year-old levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Nature, published online September 12, 2018; doi: 10.1038/s41586-018-0514-3
Source link: https://www.sci.news/archaeology/earliest-drawing-human-blombos-cave-06408.html