It was 2011 and researchers were sifting through dirt-encrusted items excavated from an early human site, Blombos Cave in South Africa. Then one of them noticed nine strangely regular lines on a flake of rock. And further analysis would show that this seemingly insignificant stone fragment was potentially of unique importance for understanding the evolution of our species.
The Blombos Cave is set in a cliff face overlooking the Indian Ocean some 185 miles to the east of the South African city of Cape Town. It has been an especially fruitful source of archaeological material relating to early Homo sapiens since its first excavation in 1991. Indeed, early human artifacts that are 100,000 years old have been discovered in the cave.
We know that small bands of early humans used the cave and that they left behind a wide variety of objects. These items include spear heads, beads fashioned from shells, and pieces of bone and ochre with crosshatched patterns cut into them. Other objects found appear to be evidence of an ability to make ocher pigment in liquid form.
Speaking to Smithsonian magazine about the ocher find, Christopher Henshilwood of Norway’s University of Bergen said, “I don’t know what they were painting, whether they were painting themselves or the cave walls or whatever. We have no evidence of what they were painting, but we do assume they could paint.”
Evidence of humans using pigments to make patterns that we might call art has of course been found at other Stone Age sites. The Cave of El Castillo in the Cantabria region of Spain is one such example. A painted red disc there has been definitively dated to over 40,000 years ago – and that cave includes many other paintings as well.
In a particularly intriguing twist to the works in the Castillo Cave, researchers have speculated that Neanderthals might even have created some of the images. It’s certainly true that Neanderthals and modern humans could have overlapped in Spain around 40,000 years ago.
Then there are the cave paintings discovered at Maros on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. These artworks consist of handprints, where the human hand has been used as a living stencil to create images. And these paintings have been dated to at least 39,000 years ago.
But perhaps the most mysterious Stone Age drawings are those found in three other Spanish caves at Ardales, Maltravieso and La Pasiega, which are more than 400 miles apart. These cave drawings have been authoritatively dated to at least 65,000 years ago. The images consist of outlined hands and geometric motifs.
But Homo sapiens didn’t make the journey north from Africa into Europe until around 45,000 years ago, to the best of our knowledge. So it must have been another species of human who created these particular artworks in the west of Spain. And there’s only one set of possible artists – the Neanderthals. They were the only humans living in Europe 65,000 years ago.
But back at Blombos, what the researchers found as they were sorting through the heap of artifacts was a small piece of stone that had been marked in a regular way with ocher pigment. Lines had been drawn on the rock in a discernible pattern. Stones with scratches on had been seen before in Blombos as well as at other archaeological sites, but not drawing like this from so long ago.
And once the date of the rock drawing had been determined, it was established that this piece of stone was the oldest human-produced drawing that’s ever been found. This image – six slim lines crossed by three others – was created 73,000 years ago.
It required seven years of study and testing to determine that age. And the archaeologists have also worked out that the pattern was drawn with an ochre crayon. In addition, the way the marks suddenly stop indicates that they were part of a bigger pattern and that this fragment of stone likely became detached from a larger slab of rock.
“The abrupt termination of all lines on the fragment edges indicates that the pattern originally extended over a larger surface,” Hinshelwood told the BBC. Speaking to Reuters, he did sound a note of caution, however. Henshilwood admitted that he was “hesitant to call it art,” although he was sure that it almost certainly had “some meaning to the maker.”
Henshilwood, who runs the University of Bergen’s Centre for Early Sapiens Behavior, told The Guardian, “It’s very striking. 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.”
Henshilwood and his colleagues went to great lengths to work out how the marks on the stone fragment had been made. As well as microscope examinations, the team experimented with making similar marks themselves. And they concluded that the lines were made using an ochre crayon with a tip that measured at most 0.125 inches.
Archaeologists use the term ocher to describe clay or rock with an orange or red color that’s created by iron minerals. The red lines on the Blombos fragment are rich in hematite, a type of iron ore with a reddish-black coloration.
Speaking to The Guardian, Henshilwood said, “The lines are very deliberate. When we reproduced the lines, you have to have a very firm hand and have to apply the ochre quite determinedly to make them look like that. There’s no doubt that it’s a symbol that meant something to the people who made it.”
“It’s a symbol that’s been repeated over and over again,” Henshilwood pointed out. “And it keeps on being repeated across the world in Australia, France and Spain and everywhere else. This is part of the repertoire of signs the human brain reproduces. I can’t tell you what it means, and I can’t say it’s art.”
Another researcher working with Henshilwood, Francesco d’Errico, added, “This is the first known drawing in human history. What does it mean? I don’t know. What I do know is that what can look very abstract to us could mean something to the people in the traditional society who produced it.”
And this, of course, is the intriguing question. Did these prehistoric humans from more than 70,000 years ago have a concept of “art?” Speaking to National Geographic, Hinshelwood addressed that very issue. “Art is a very hard thing to define. Look at some of Picasso’s abstracts. Is that art?” he mused. “Who’s going to tell you it’s art or not?”