A recent discovery of a drawing made by prehistoric humans at Blombos Cave, South Africa, dating back to 73,000 years ago, has given a new dimension to the history of ancient human drawings. This drawing predates previously known prehistoric drawings from Africa, Europe and South East Asia by at least 30,000 years.
The drawing consists of three red lines that are cross hatched with six different lines as the new finding reports. The cross hatched pattern was drawn with an ochre crayon on a silcrete flake. Chemical and microscopic analyses made in the study confirm that the pattern was intentionally made on the flake using the ochre crayon. The drawing shows the ability of the early Homo sapiens of southern Africa to produce graphical designs.
The ochre that was used in the drawing is a reddish brown clay powder that is moldable to chunks. In a series of experiments, the researchers tried to reproduce the pattern on the flakes by ochre paint and ochre crayon. Only the ochre crayon matched the striated lines and its frizzy edges. The team used a microscopic photograph to examine whether the lines on the stone were a part of the stone itself or whether it was applied to it. They also used RAMAN spectroscopic technique and electron microscopy for better confirmation. The hashed lines seen on the flakes were made carefully and some of them were traced back and forth suggesting that these were made intentionally—the researchers conclude. This made it clear that the pattern of lines on the silcrete was no way accidental; rather it demonstrates the development of early humans that conferred them with the capability of drawing. Silcrete refers to a hardened rock composed mainly of quartz and siliceous cement.
Professor Christopher Hensilwood, the corresponding author of the paper that reported this finding, has been engaged in the excavation of the Blombos Cave since 1991. Hensilwood is currently a professor and the director of the SFF Center for Early Sapiens Behaviour, University of Bergen, Norway. He along with his colleague, Dr Karen Van Niekerk, have excavated many important resources like fossils, stone samples dating from 1,00,000 to 70,000 years ago. This period is referred to as the middle stone age. Moreover, the cave contains materials from the later Stone Age as well that dates back to 2000-3000 years ago.
Paleolithic archaeologists have long been convinced that the earliest symbols in human history appeared about 40,000 years back when Homo sapiens entered Europe replacing the Neanderthals. But many recent archaeological findings from Africa, Asia and Europe hint towards the much earlier emergence of symbols—professor Hensilwood explains.
The earliest known symbol was found in Trinil, Java. It was found as an engraving zig-zag pattern on a fresh water shell that dates back 54,000 years ago. But the new finding shows drawing and symbols could be a much older phenomenon.
Earlier, in the same cave, etchings on a piece of ochre containing a similar cross hatched pattern were found. These patterns date back to some 1,00,000 years from now. This shows that early humans had the cognitive ability of making symbols. The etched patterns, however, cannot be categorised as drawings, rather these were done more for decoration or enjoyment—according to Kristian Tylen, a cognitive scientist of Aarhus University of Denmark.