The earliest evidence of a drawing made by humans – dating back 73,000 years – has been found in an African cave.
Scientists say the drawing, which consists of three red lines cross-hatched with six separate lines, was “intentionally created” on a smooth silcrete flake.
The find – at Blombos Cave in the Southern Cape area of South Africa – predates previous drawings from Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia by at least 30,000 years.
The amazing discovery was made by archaeologist Dr Luca Pollarolo, of Witwatersrand University in South Africa, while he painstakingly sifted through thousands of similar flakes that were excavated from Blombos Cave in the lab.
Blombos Cave has been excavated by leading archaeologists Professor Christopher Henshilwood and Dr Karen van Niekerk since 1991.
It contains material dating from 100,000 to 70 000 years ago, a time period referred to as the Middle Stone Age, as well as younger, Later Stone Age material dating from 2,000 to 300 years ago.
Realising that the lines on the flake were unlike anything that the team had come across from the cave before, they set out to answer the questions it posed.
Under the guidance of study second author Professor Francesco d’Errico, of the University of Bordeaux in France, the team 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.
To ensure their results, they also examined the piece by using RAMAN spectroscopy and an electron microscope.
After confirming the lines were applied to the stone, the team experimented with various paint and drawing techniques and found that the drawings were made with an ochre crayon, with a tip of between one and three millimetres thick.
They said 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.
Prof 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.
“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.”
The earliest known engraving, a zig-zag pattern, incised on a fresh water shell from Trinil, Java, was found in layers dated to 540 000 years ago.
A recent article proposed that painted representations in three caves of the Iberian Peninsula were 64,000 years old and therefore produced by Neanderthals.
That makes the drawing on the Blombos silcrete flake the oldest drawing by Homo sapiens ever found.
The researchers said that the archaeological layer in which the Blombos drawing was found also yielded other indicators of ‘symbolic thinking’ – including shell beads covered with ochre – and pieces of ochres engraved with abstract patterns.
They said some of the engravings “closely resemble” the one drawn on the silcrete flake.
Prof Henshilwood added: “This demonstrates that early Homo sapiens in the southern Cape used different techniques to produce similar signs on different media.
“This observation supports the hypothesis that these signs were symbolic in nature and represented an inherent aspect of the behaviourally modern world of these African Homo sapiens, the ancestors of all of us today.”
The findings were published in the journal Nature.