Stone in South African cave boasts oldest-known human drawing, resembles hashtag

James Marshall
September 14, 2018

Some 73,000 years ago in what is now South Africa, an early human used a red ochre crayon to draw a cross-hatched pattern onto a smooth flake, according to new research published this week.

Scientists say they have discovered humanity's oldest known drawing on a small fragment of rock in South Africa.

The drawing itself was placed on a flake of silcrete, which is a mineral that results from the mixture of sand and gravel, and with ocher being used to create and color the tiny scratches on the flake, the sharp red lines that were left behind by ancient Homo sapiens in South Africa can still be seen today.

"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", said University of Bergen professor Christopher Henshilwood in a statement.

It consists of three red lines, cross-hatched with six separate lines.

According to National Geographic, the drawing itself is somewhat understated and can be likened to what nearly looks like a modern-day hashtag.

It's evidently part of a larger drawing because lines reaching the edge are cut off abruptly there, researchers said.

The discovery of the ochre drawing is exceptional but not unexpected, said Emmanuelle Honoré, a fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge in England, who wasn't involved with the study. "The pattern was probably more complex and structured in its entirety than in this truncated form", Henshilwood explained.

This has shifted our thinking about when human ancestors started drawing.

Several years ago, there was a jovial debate why Chris Messina, a former Google designer who proposed Twitter use the hashtag to sort topics, did not patent the idea and make millions off it - it turns out he might have been about 73,000 years too late. So the newly found sketch is probably not just a collection of random scratchings.

It shows early humans used different techniques to produce similar signs on different surfaces.

"We would be hesitant to call it art". It's also evidence of early humans' ability to store information outside of the human brain.

Blombos Cave, where the stone flake was found, sits 185 miles away from Cape Town and sits inside a cliff that looks out over the Indian Ocean.

The fragment of silicate, about 4cm by 1cm, was discovered in 2011 but researchers have only now become confident that the pattern on its surface was deliberately created. The oldest known engraving, for instance, is another piece of abstract art: a zigzag line that Homo erectus carved onto a shell 540,000 years ago in Indonesia, Live Science previously reported. Thus, with the Neanderthal art in mind, the drawing found at Blombos Cave pre-dates the oldest known drawing by 9000 years, and not 30,000 years as suggested by the authors.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

Discuss This Article

FOLLOW OUR NEWSPAPER