Blombos Cave: Earliest Known Drawing by a Human found in Africa old of 73,000 years

Rock Art from Blombos Cave (Source: C. Henshilwood, Wikipedia)

We take drawing for granted, and we know that our ancestors, ancient humans thought of drawings as a very good communication tool, as depicted in petroglyphs found in a thousand places on the African continent, in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

This may be old news to some, but the earliest evidence of a drawing made by humans has been found in the Blombos Cave in the southern Cape province of South Africa. Blombos Cave contains material dating from 100,000—70,000 years ago.

The drawing, which consists of three red lines cross-hatched with six separate lines, was intentionally drawn on a smooth silcrete flake about 73,000 years ago. This predates previous drawing from Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia.

Oldest Drawing by Homo Sapiens, dated to be 73,000 years old, found in the Blombos Cave (Source: Wikipedia)

Excavations at the world-famous archeological Blombos Cave site, have yielded many important riches. These include delicately crafted stones and bone implements preceding comparable European artifacts by more than 80,000 years, and at least 8,000 pieces of ochre, used as colour pigment by early humans. This indicates that our ancestors already had an acute sense of colors, and the different properties of these oxidizing colors (ferrous oxide), suggesting a strong understanding of the chemistry behind the colors’ composition.

… the drawings were made with an ochre crayon, with a tip of between 1 and 3 millimetres thick. Further, the abrupt termination of the lines at the edge of the flake also suggested that the pattern originally extended over a larger surface, and may have been more complex in its entirety.

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,” says Pr. Christopher Henshilwood from the University of Witswatersrand. “Recent archaeological discoveries in Africa, Europe and Asia, in which members of our team have often participated, support a much earlier emergence for the production and use of symbols.”

The archaeological layer in which the Blombos drawing was found also yielded other indicators of symbolic thinking, such as shell beads covered with ochre, and, more importantly, pieces of ochres engraved with abstract patterns. Some of these engravings closely resemble the one drawn on the silcrete flake.

Bifacial silcrete point from M1 phase (71,000 BCE) layer of Blombos Cave, South Africa (Source: Wikipedia)

This demonstrates that early Homo sapiens in the southern Cape used different techniques to produce similar signs on different media,” says Henshilwood. “This observation supports the hypothesis that these signs were symbolic in nature and represented an inherent aspect of the behaviorally modern world of these African Homo sapiens, the ancestors of all of us today.

To find out more, please read this article written by Christopher Henshilwood and his team in Nature, as well as this article in the National Geographic.