Earliest art found in South Africa

by Mary Caperton Morton
Friday, December 21, 2018

Blombos Cave, located along the South African coast about 300 kilometers east of Cape Town, has been excavated since 1991, revealing materials left by Homo sapiens between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago. A closer look at some curious red lines on a flake of rock found in the cave in 2011 has confirmed they were drawn by humans as early as 73,000 years ago, predating the earliest-known forms of art by as much as 30,000 years.

At first, researchers thought the three red lines cross-hatched by six separate lines on a smooth flake of lithified soil called silcrete appeared to be a natural marking on the rock. But when Luca Pollarolo of the University of the Witwatersrand re-examined the lines using an electron microscope and Raman spectroscopy, he found evidence that the lines were drawn using an ochre crayon. The lines run off the edge of the flake, suggesting the drawing might have extended over a larger surface area.

The marked flake was found among thousands of similar fragments on the floor of the cave, in a layer also containing ochre-colored shell beads and pieces of ochre engraved with abstract patterns similar to the pattern on the flake, Pollarolo and colleagues reported in Nature.

“This demonstrates that early Homo sapiens in the southern Cape used different techniques to produce similar signs on different media,” said co-author Christopher Henshilwood, also at the University of the Witwatersrand, in a statement. “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.”

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