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Archaeology: Stone Age ‘hashtag’ may be the first-ever drawing


September 13, 2018

The earliest known drawing in history - a red, cross-hatched pattern - has been unearthed in South Africa, reports a study published online this week in Nature.

Blombos Cave, located on the southern coast of South Africa, east of Cape Town, is a site that contains some of earliest known evidence of behaviourally modern human cultural activity. The cave has furnished an abundance of early human artefacts dated to between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago, including shell beads, engraved pieces of ochre and tools manufactured from pre-heated silicrete - a fine-grained cemented form of sand and gravel.

Christopher Henshilwood and colleagues report the discovery of a ground-smooth silicrete flake onto which a six-by-three-lined cross-hatched pattern has been intentionally drawn in red ochre. The abrupt termination of the lines at the edge of the flake suggests that the pattern originally extended over a larger surface, and may have been more complex in its entirety. Based on experiments recreating the pattern, the authors conclude that the drawing was made with a pointed ochre crayon with a tip around 1-3 millimetres in width.

The drawing - which was unearthed from the same 73,000 year-old sediments in the cave that previously yielded the engraved ochre pieces - pre-dates previously identified abstract and figurative drawings from Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia by at least 30,000 years. The finding, the authors conclude, demonstrates the ability of early Homo sapiens in southern Africa to make graphic designs in various media using different techniques.

doi: 10.1038/s41586-018-0514-3

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