Archeologists on Thursday said they have discovered the earliest known human drawing in a cave in South Africa, created with an ochre crayon 73,000 years ago.
The abstract drawing is made on a silcrete stone flake displaying a red cross-hatched line pattern, according to the study published the journal Nature.
“The drawing adds a completely new dimension to our ability to understand when early humans became like us,” said Christopher Henshilwood, a professor at the University of Bergen (UiB) in Norway.
“The drawing demonstrates that early Homo sapiens in southern Africa had the skills to make graphic designs in various media using different techniques at least 30,000 years earlier than first anticipated,” Henshilwood said in a statement.
The drawing was excavated from Blombos Cave, when principal investigators Henshilwood and Karen van Niekerk were excavating the 73,000-year-old layer in the cave.
“The discovery was obviously very exciting for all of us! You can say—it was one of those unexpected days, which any archaeologist lives for,” researchers said.
They carefully examined and photographed the piece under a microscope to establish whether the lines were already part of the stone, or if it had been applied to the stone intentionally.
The team also used sophisticated instruments to establish that the lines are ochre.
Years of inquiries led to the conclusion that the cross-hatched drawing had been made with a pointed ochre crayon with a tip around 13 millimetres in width, researchers said.
The abrupt termination of the lines at the edge of the flake also suggests that the pattern originally extended over a larger surface, and may have been more complex in its entirety.
The analysis also confirms that the lines were indeed applied to the flake, and consisted of a haematite rich powder, commonly referred to as ochre, 73,000 years ago, researchers said.
It makes the drawing on the Blombos silcrete flake the oldest drawing know drawing made by Homo sapiens, they said.
Before this discovery, archaeologists had for a long time been convinced that unambiguous symbols first appeared when Homo sapiens entered Europe, 40,000 years ago, and replaced local Neanderthals.
Recent discoveries in Africa, Europe and Asia support a much earlier emergence for the production and use of symbols, researchers said.
According to Henshilwood, the abstract drawing, found in Blombos Cave, is yet more proof that symbolic behaviour started in Africa and not in Europe as first anticipated.