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Earliest known rock drawing at 73,000 years ago

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rock with ancient drawing
ochre on silcrete/Craig Foster

A type of crosshatch etched in ocher:

The discovery “helps round out the argument that Homo sapiens [at Blombos Cave] behaved essentially like us before 70,000 years ago,” says archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergen in Norway.

His team noticed the ancient drawing while examining thousands of stone fragments and tools excavated in 2011 from cave sediment. Other finds have included 100,000- to 70,000-year-old pigment chunks engraved with crosshatched and line designs (SN Online: 6/12/09), 100,000-year-old abalone shells containing remnants of a pigment-infused paint (SN: 11/19/11, p. 16) and shell beads from around the same time. Bruce Bower, “This South African cave stone may bear the world’s oldest drawing” at Science News

Yes, the past is changing so fast we can’t keep up. The crosshatch pattern appears on other artifacts as well:

The patterned stone from Blombos was found by chance in 2011 as researchers washed ash and dirt from spear points and other artefacts uncovered at the site. The discovery prompted an intensive effort to analyse the marks – six thin lines crossed by three others – and discern how they got there.

“It’s very striking,” said Christopher Henshilwood, leader of the research team and director of the Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour at the University of Bergen in Norway. “You can see immediately that it’s a cross-hatch design in red on a smooth surface. It’s very tiny but it’s pretty impressive.” “Earliest known drawing found on rock in South African cave” at The Guardian

One thing we can’t know is whether our ancestors feared misfortune (or retribution) for writing things down. Prometheus, after all, was eternally punished by stealing fire from the gods.

Writing things down solidifies an otherwise plastic past. Consider: If memory and, later, oral tradition alone determine the size of the bull our chieftain’s great-grandfather killed “with his bare hands,” our appointed elders are not going to appreciate some joker who actually wrote down the dimensions on a stone at the time and hid them for later purposes. Myth threatens to congeal into reality.

Even today, cultures seek to limit the transcription and sharing of information by unofficial sources. The more authoritarian they are, the greater the suspicion and the penalties for doing so.

We need not be surprised if writing things down was considered, at first, a big and dangerous step. Many people prefer plastic history.

In any event, in any Darwinian scheme, someone must be the subhuman. Otherwise, there is no beginning to human history. But the subhumans keep receding into history …

Here’s the abstract. Open access here:

The discovery of L13 demonstrates that drawing was part of the behavioural repertoire of populations of early Homo sapiens in south-ern Africa at about 73 ka. It demonstrates their ability to apply similar graphic designs on various media using different techniques. The dis-covery of abstract engravings on ochre, with patterns comparable to L13, from levels at BBC dated to 100–73 ka (Fig. 1) and the production of an ochre-rich paint stored in abalone shells6 suggest that drawings and possibly paintings may have been produced in older MSA levels, perhaps since 100 ka. The cross-hatched pattern of L13 pre-dates by at least 30,000 years the earliest previously known abstract and figurative drawings. This finding supplements previous evidence reflecting cultural modernity and symbol use that has already been identified in the MSA levels at BBC through the discovery of personal ornaments, elaborate bone tools, engravings, and the production and storage of pigmented compounds. The L13 drawing adds a further dimension to our understanding of the processes that shaped the behaviour and cognition of early H. sapiens. More.

See also: Humans lived in Madagascar 6000 years earlier than thought And probably did not kill off the elephant birds in a mass slaughter, as often claimed, say researchers

5 Replies to “Earliest known rock drawing at 73,000 years ago

  1. 1
    daveS says:


    In any event, in any Darwinian scheme, someone must be the subhuman. Otherwise, there is no beginning to human history. But the subhumans keep receding into history …

    ET and I discussed this issue a while back. He thought that “subhuman” in this context is not meant prejoratively; the JV team is merely “subvarsity”, for example, even though the players all have equal value in a larger sense. Is that the meaning you intend? Or do you mean something like inferior, or beneath us?

    And is this argument meant to point out a problem with Darwinism? If it is, I don’t see the problem.

    To borrow an analogy, there was no beginning to the English language, in the sense that there was no particular first speaker of the language. Therefore there is no discrete beginning to English history. Do we call those who lived before (modern, say) English arose “sub”-somethings? No, they simply spoke a different language than we North Americans in the 21st century do.

  2. 2
    polistra says:

    I shouldn’t criticize these researchers for OVERestimating past intelligence when most of them hugely UNDERestimate. But in this case I think they’re jumping to the conclusion of symbols. They proved the marks were made intentionally with a sharpened ocher crayon, but these particular marks look more like testing or sharpening the crayon. Similar to scraping a pen on a newspaper to clean the point.

  3. 3
    vmahuna says:

    “One thing we can’t know is whether our ancestors feared misfortune (or retribution) for writing things down.”

    The Celts of Northern Europe used a variety of alphabets before the evil Romans came north and destroyed everything.

    Amongst the Druids, who knew perfectly well how to write using their native Ogam or the Greek alphabet, it was believed that it was possible to recall a word SPOKEN out loud, but written words were PERMANENT. This was highly significant to the Druids because a Druid could be put to death for uttering a falsehood. Even if not killed, the Druid’s reputation was destroyed. So it was common for Druids to speak in convoluted ways, open to more than one interpretation.

  4. 4
    Pearlman says:

    RCCF calibrates to mid The Ice Ages, (1657-1996 anno mundi not 25M – 10k). The Q on deep-time dependent adherents why 340 years worth max of factual evidence if 60k year span from 70k asserted to 10k asserted YA if there was a 70k YA and we could draw already 70k YA.

  5. 5
    random.dent says:

    daveS’s comment and Pearlman’s comment are on opposite sides of a clarity spectrum.

    And perhaps other spectra as well.

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