Archaeologists Have Found the World's Oldest Known Drawing in a South African Cave

By George Dvorsky on at

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 today. It’s now considered the earliest evidence of drawing in the archaeological record.

The drawing, which consists of three red lines intersecting with six other lines, is reminiscent of the pound symbol. What this cross-hatched pattern meant to the artist is something we may never know, but as the authors of the new Nature paper point out, it was most definitely an intentional drawing. It predates previous evidence of drawing by at least 30,000 years (though the actual figure may be closer to 9,000 years—more on that in just a bit). Humans, as this discovery makes clear, have been doodling for a very long time.

The entrance to Blombos Cave in the southern Cape of South Africa. Image: Magnus Haaland

Dubbed L13, the drawing was found in South Africa’s Blombos Cave, a fruitful Middle Stone Age archaeological site that has produced some of the oldest evidence of human cultural activity. Many of the artefacts found in the cave, such as bone awls, spear points, shell beads, and engraved pieces of ochre, have been dated to between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago.

The L13 piece was uncovered in 2011, but it took the watchful eye of archaeologist Luca Pollarolo, an honorary research fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand and a co-author of the new study, to detect the deliberate red marks among thousands of similar flakes uncovered at the site. The surface used by the Middle Stone Age artist is known as silcrete — a concrete-like mineral composed of fine-grained sand and gravel. A red ochre crayon was applied to the smooth silcrete flake to form the three-by-six pattern.

To prove that the red lines were a bona fide drawing, and not the result of natural processes, the researchers analyzed the marks with optical and electron microscopes. RAMAN spectroscopy was used to conduct a chemical analysis, revealing the red substance as coming from ochre (a naturally occurring earth pigment). Combined, the microscopic and chemical analyses of the pattern “confirm that red ochre pigment was intentionally applied to the flake with an ochre crayon,” write the authors in the study.

Microscopic view of the red ochre markings. Image: C. S. Henshilwood et al., 2018/Nature

The researchers, led by Christopher Henshilwood and Francesco d’Errico, both from the University of Bergen in Norway, also engaged in some experimental archaeological, recreating the methods used to create the early drawing. This exercise showed that the tip of the artist’s ochre crayon was around 1-3 millimeters wide. The exercise also allowed the researchers to discern which lines were created with a single stroke, which required multiple strokes, and the direction the strokes were made in. By experimentally marking silcrete flakes with ochre crayons, the researchers were able to show that “the lines on L13 were produced with a crayon and thus constitute a drawing,” in the words of the authors.

Artist’s rendering of the nine lines (top), along with a hypothetical impression of the complete drawing (bottom). Image: C. S. Henshilwood et al., 2018/Nature

During the Middle Stone Age, early humans used ochre for things other than drawing, including as an additive to glue and as a sunscreen, according to the researchers. But very little ochre was applied to the silcrete flake, leading the authors to conclude that the lines couldn’t have had any “utilitarian objective,” and that it was a drawing.

The L13 flake measures 38.6 millimeters long, 12.8 mm wide, and 15.4 mm high, but the red lines are abruptly cut off at the edges. This means the original drawing likely extended over a larger surface area, and that “the pattern was probably more complex and structured in its entirety than in this truncated form,” the researchers write in the study.

The silcrete flake was found in a layer of sediment previously dated to 73,000 years old, and in a cave that has previously been found to contain ochre pieces. “This notable discovery predates the earliest previously known abstract and figurative drawings by at least 30,000 years,” write the authors in the study, alluding to drawings made by early humans in Africa, Europe, and Southeast Asia.

Sadly, the researchers have chosen to disregard paintings made by Neanderthals in three Spanish caves, dating back some 64,000 to 66,000 years ago. The authors make casual mention of this discovery in their new paper, saying that these Neanderthal cave paintings were only “recently proposed” in the scientific literature, which is quite unfair. These paintings, which were drawn with ochre, have been under intense scrutiny since 2012, with the most recent work providing some of the strongest dating evidence yet. Thus, with the Neanderthal art in mind, the drawing found at Blombos Cave pre-dates the oldest known drawing by 9,000 years, and not 30,000 years as suggested by the authors.

It’s also worth pointing out that many human-made engravings—not drawings—date even further back in time. For example, a zig-zag pattern etched onto a shell in Trinil Java has been dated to 540,000 years ago (this discovery pre-dates Homo sapiens, so it was likely made by Homo erectus). Abstract engravings are actually quite common in the archaeological record, with other examples including a 370,000-year-old engraved bone from Bilzingsleben, Germany, and markings on a 90,000-year-old skull found in Qafzeh cave in Israel, among others. In fact, Blombos Cave itself has produced engravings older than this drawing, namely an engraved chunk of ochre dating to between 100,000 to 73,000 years ago.

Etchings are a form of symbolic art, but they’re made by cutting or scraping objects. Drawings, on the other hand, require an artist to apply a substance (paint, ochre, etc.) to a surface, like a rock or cave wall. It’s a fine distinction, but an important one nonetheless. A drawing, it can be argued, requires a different conceptual leap than etching.

Indeed, the discovery of L13 “demonstrates that drawing was part of the behavioural repertoire of populations of early Homo sapiens in southern Africa at about 73,000 years ago,” write the authors in the study. “It demonstrates their ability to apply similar graphic designs on various media using [a] different technique.” It’s an important find, providing evidence of modern thinking processes and behavior in these early humans.

Paul Bahn, author of Archaeology: The Essential Guide to Our Human Past, said this particular discovery doesn’t really change our understanding of human history, though it’s a welcome new piece of evidence.

“We already had criss-cross engravings on ochre from Blombos from an even earlier date; this ochre drawing is just cream on the cake,” Bahn told Gizmodo. “But it all forms part of a much bigger and important picture, that is, ‘art,’ or the making of imagery or markings, is far older than was traditionally thought. We already have markings in four caves (three in Spain, one in France) that can safely be attributed to Neanderthals, and we even have a few examples of markings from Homo erectus times. So we are currently living through a very exciting time when new discoveries like this are changing our view of our ancestors’ capabilities.”

Because older ochre has been found at Blombos Cave, the archaeologists are hopeful that even older drawings will be found, some possibly as ancient as 100,000 years. Stay tuned, as this story is likely far from over. [Nature]