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73,000-Year-Old Doodle May Be World's Oldest Drawing

National Geographic logo National Geographic 13/09/2018 Erin Blakemore

a close up of a rock: This stone flake marked with ochre was discovered in Blombos Cave in South Africa. © Photograph by Craig Foster This stone flake marked with ochre was discovered in Blombos Cave in South Africa. Seventy-three thousand years ago, an early human in what is now South Africapicked up a piece of ocher and used it to scratch a hashtag-like mark onto a piece of stone.

Now, that stone has been discovered by an international team of archaeologists who are calling it the earliest known drawing in history.

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According to their report, published today in the journal Nature, the stone predates the previous earliest known cave art—found in Indonesia and Spain—by 30,000 years. That would significantly push back the emergence of “behaviorally modern” activities among ancient Homo sapiens.

an old stone building: People stand among the ruins of the Maya Palace of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico. This Alfred P. Maudslay photograph appeared inBiologia Centrali-Americana: Archaeology, issued between 1889 and 1902. © Photography by Alfred P. Maudslay, National Geographic Creative People stand among the ruins of the Maya Palace of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico. This Alfred P. Maudslay photograph appeared inBiologia Centrali-Americana: Archaeology, issued between 1889 and 1902. But how solid is the find, and can it really be labeled as art? Here’s what you need to know about the discovery and its possible implications.

What did the scientists find?

The archaeologists found a smooth flake of silcrete, a mineral formed when sand and gravel cement together. The inch-and-a-half-long flake is covered in scratch-like markings made with ocher, a hardened, iron-rich material that leaves behind a red pigment.

Thousands of life-size clay soldiers and horses stand guard over Emperor Qin Shi Huang's tomb near the city of Xi’an, China. Considered one of the greatest archeological discoveries of modern times, the Terra-Cotta Army was discovered in 1974 by a group of farmers. © Photograph by O. Louis Mazzatenta, National Geographic Creative Thousands of life-size clay soldiers and horses stand guard over Emperor Qin Shi Huang's tomb near the city of Xi’an, China. Considered one of the greatest archeological discoveries of modern times, the Terra-Cotta Army was discovered in 1974 by a group of farmers. Where was the stone discovered?

The team found the flake of stone in a dense deposit of artifacts that early Homo sapiens left in Blombos Cave, which lies about 185 miles east of Cape Town, South Africa. Nestled inside the face of a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean, the cave seems to have given small groups of humans a place to rest for brief periods before they headed out to hunt and gather food.

About 70,000 years ago, the cave closed, sealing in the artifacts from these visits. The cave opened and closed again over the years as sea levels and sand dunes rose and fell, and that did archaeologists a big favor by sealing the cave instead of letting its contents be swept away by the sea.

Aerial view of Jarlshof, an archaeological site on the southern tip of the Shetland Islands. The site is noted for its broad historical range, with ruins from the Bronze Age through the Viking Age and into the early 16th century. © Photograph by Jim Richardson, National Geographic Creative Aerial view of Jarlshof, an archaeological site on the southern tip of the Shetland Islands. The site is noted for its broad historical range, with ruins from the Bronze Age through the Viking Age and into the early 16th century.

“The preservation is absolutely perfect,” says the paper’s author, Christopher Henshilwood, an archaeologist who heads up the Center for Early Sapiens Behavior at the University of Bergen. Henshilwood, who has previously received National Geographic grants, has conducted digs at the site since the 1990s.

Inside the cave, scientists have found other evidence of Homo sapiens being crafty from as far back as a hundred thousand years ago. Discoveries so far include perforated shells that archaeologists think were used as beads; tools and spear points; pieces of bone and ocher with scratched faces; and a group of artifacts that seems to point to production of a liquid form of ocher pigment.

a group of people in a small boat in a body of water: Members of an archaeology expedition help pull a wooden ferry across a river in Mongolia's Darhad Valley. © Photograph by Gordon Wiltse, National Geographic Creative Members of an archaeology expedition help pull a wooden ferry across a river in Mongolia's Darhad Valley. Why do researchers think this stone is important?

The discovery shows “that drawing was part of the behavioral repertoire” of early humans, the researchers write. If people were making paints, stringing beads, engraving patterns on bones, and drawing, then they were behaviorally modern as early as 70,000 years ago, and perhaps earlier, Henshilwood says.

a man sitting on a rock: Archaeologists study a colossal Olmec stone head in La Venta, Mexico in this 1947 National Geographic photo. The Olmec civilization, the first in Mesoamerica, offers valuable clues into the development of the rest of the region. © Photograph by Richard Hewitt Stewart, National Geographic Archaeologists study a colossal Olmec stone head in La Venta, Mexico in this 1947 National Geographic photo. The Olmec civilization, the first in Mesoamerica, offers valuable clues into the development of the rest of the region. “It’s the fourth leg of the table,” he says. The same types of evidence have been used to show the development of early modern humans in Europe, he points out.

This sculpture of the mother-goddess Kybele was found at Catalhoyuk, Turkey and is often cited as proof of Earth Mother worship, a common belief in Neolithic Europe before the rise of patriarchal society. © Photograph by Vincent J. Musi, National Geographic Creative This sculpture of the mother-goddess Kybele was found at Catalhoyuk, Turkey and is often cited as proof of Earth Mother worship, a common belief in Neolithic Europe before the rise of patriarchal society. Do other experts agree with their conclusions?

“This is well dated,” says Margaret Conkey, an archaeologist and professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, who has extensively studied cave and rock art. “The context is good. They've been working on this stuff for many years. They're very thorough.”

A carving of a Nubian captive adorns the handle of a walking stick recovered from the tomb of King Tut. The placement of a Nubian captive on King Tut’s walking stick is typical of Ancient Egyptian imagery which often depicts kings in their role as conqueror. (Read about Nubians in modern-day Egypt.) © Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic A carving of a Nubian captive adorns the handle of a walking stick recovered from the tomb of King Tut. The placement of a Nubian captive on King Tut’s walking stick is typical of Ancient Egyptian imagery which often depicts kings in their role as conqueror. (Read about Nubians in modern-day Egypt.) However, says Conkey, she takes issue with the interpretation that modern behavior first arose in southern Africa. “They're focusing on an Afrocentrism,” she says, which challenges a view that puts the origins of behavioral modernity in Europe. 

a bird that is standing in the dirt: A man from the former kingdom of Mustang in northern Nepal carries human remains recovered from a burial crypt. (Read more about archaeology in Mustang.) © Photograph by Cory Richards, National Geographic Creative A man from the former kingdom of Mustang in northern Nepal carries human remains recovered from a burial crypt. (Read more about archaeology in Mustang.) “Neither centrum is good, because human evolution and behavior are complicated,” she says. “There is no one single origin.”

An aerial view of Leptis Magna in western Libya, one of the largest and best preserved Roman cities. The city, constructed during the reign of Augustus and Tiberius, was remodelled by Septimius Severus, and became a thriving urban center complete with a theater, market square, baths and basilica. (Click here for a 360° view.) © Photograph by George Steinmetz, National Geographic Creative An aerial view of Leptis Magna in western Libya, one of the largest and best preserved Roman cities. The city, constructed during the reign of Augustus and Tiberius, was remodelled by Septimius Severus, and became a thriving urban center complete with a theater, market square, baths and basilica. (Click here for a 360° view.) Researchers call the artifact a “drawing.” But is it art?

“We don’t know that it’s art at all,” says Henshilwood. “We know that it’s a symbol.” But since the stone flake has similar cross-hatchings as the ones found on bones and pieces of ochre in Blombos, he does believe the design was deliberate. “Art is a very hard thing to define. Look at some of Picasso’s abstracts. Is that art? Who’s going to tell you it’s art or not?”

But Conkey thinks the wording chosen by Henshilwood and his team points to a particular interpretation, especially when it comes to the way they describe the ocher used to depict the hash marks. “They’re calling it a crayon,” she says. “That automatically leads you to think they’re drawing something. Why not be a little more neutral and call it a piece of ocher?”

A diver descends into a cenote or sinkhole in Mexico. Exploring cenotes has enabled archaeologists to discover new clues about Maya civilization. © Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic A diver descends into a cenote or sinkhole in Mexico. Exploring cenotes has enabled archaeologists to discover new clues about Maya civilization. Conkey sees the use of words like “drawing” and “crayon” as rhetorical tools used by Henshilwood and his team to imply that the early humans’ behavior was, in fact, modern. She sees the hash marks as perhaps nothing more than a doodle—an example of an early human engaging with the world around them.

a view of a giraffe: The Stones of Stenness is a Neolithic monument in Orkney, Scotland dating from around 3000 BC. Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, and the newly discovered “Ness of Brodgar” form the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. © Photograph by Jim Richardson, National Geographic The Stones of Stenness is a Neolithic monument in Orkney, Scotland dating from around 3000 BC. Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, and the newly discovered “Ness of Brodgar” form the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. Did the early human pick up that piece of ocher deliberately? Was it meant to portray an object or even an abstract concept? Without a time machine, we’ll never know. Nevertheless, says Conkey, “this is exciting stuff. This adds to the complexity of the material record from early Homo sapiens in South Africa.”

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