9/13/2018 – Nature, the International Journal of Science, today reveals that the oldest known abstract drawing, made with ocher, has been found in a South African cave on a pebble retrieved from 73,000-year-old deposits. It is a crosshatch of nine lines purposefully traced with a piece of ocher having a fine point and used as a pencil. The work is at least 30,000 years older than the earliest previously known abstract and figurative drawings executed using the same technique.
The discovered pebble featuring a crosshatch of nine lines
Among the tools used to bring this exciting new discovery to light, SensoMap software, based on Mountains® technology allowed archeologists to reveal that the pebble in question was probably originally part of a large ocher grindstone, the surface of which may have been completely covered by a drawing which the fragment discovered would have been part of.
Surface analysis performed using SensoMap software (ISO and SSFA parameter calculations)
(article in French)
CNRS (French National Research Institute) press release
What is a symbol?
This is a tough question to answer when tasked with analyzing the earliest graphic productions. What we might today interpret as figurative representations might just be an ancient doodle that had no special purpose. For a long time, archaeologists were convinced the first symbols appeared when Homo sapiens colonized areas of Europe about 40,000 years ago. However, recent archaeological discoveries in Africa, Europe, and Asia suggest the creation and use of symbols emerged much earlier. For example, the oldest known engraving is a zigzag carved into the shell of a freshwater mussel found in Trinil (Java) within 540,000-year-old archaeological strata1. And objects for personal adornment have been unearthed at several archaeological sites in Africa dating back to 70,000 to 120,000 years before the present (BP).
Earliest drawing 73,000 years old
The researchers describe the oldest known abstract drawing made with a piece of ocher used as a pencil. It was identified on the surface of a small piece of siliceous rock (silcrete) while analyzing stone tools collected during an excavation at Blombos Cave in South Africa. The silcrete fragment came from a 73,000-year-old archaeological stratum and bears a crosshatched pattern made up of nine fine lines.
Tribological analysis and roughness measurement
A major methodological challenge was to prove these lines were deliberately drawn by humans. It was primarily tackled by the team’s French members, experts in these matters and specialized in the chemical analysis of pigments. First, they reproduced the same lines using various techniques: they tried fragments of ocher with a point or an edge and also applied different aqueous dilutions of ocher powder using brushes. Using techniques of microscopic, chemical, and tribological analysis, they then compared their drawings to the ancient original. Their findings confirm the lines were intentionally drawn with a pointed ocher implement on a surface first smoothed by rubbing. The pattern thus constitutes the earliest known drawing, preceding the oldest previously discovered works by at least 30,000 years.
Abstract pattern engraved on a piece of ocher found in the same archaeological stratum that yielded the silcrete flake
The archaeological stratum in which the silcrete flake lay had already yielded many other objects with symbolic markings, including ocher fragments that feature very similar crosshatched engraving. These finds demonstrate that the first Homo sapiens in this region of Africa used different techniques to produce similar signs on different materials, which supports the hypothesis that these markings served a symbolic function.
This discovery is reported in Nature by an international team that includes scientists from the PACEA (CNRS / University of Bordeaux / French Ministry of Culture) and TRACES (CNRS / University of Toulouse–Jean Jaurès / French Ministry of Culture) research units.
An abstract drawing from the 73,000-year-old levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Christopher S. Henshilwood, Francesco d’Errico, Karen L. van Niekerk, Laure Dayet, Alain Queffelec & Luca Pollarolo. September 12th, 2018, Nature. DOI : 10.1038/s41586-018-0514-3