Researchers Discover Ancient 'Hashtag'

Sep 12, 2018
Originally published on November 8, 2018 6:59 pm

Scientists working in South Africa say they've found the earliest known drawing. It was dug up in a cave where early humans apparently lived for thousands of years and left behind numerous artifacts.

The drawing isn't what you'd call elaborate; it's a row of crosshatched lines along the smooth face of a rock that may have been a tool for making ocher. In fact, the red lines were made with red ocher. The pattern (with a little imagination) resembles a hashtag. What's remarkable is that it was apparently made about 73,000 years ago. That's tens of thousands of years older than similar drawings made in European caves.

The researchers, led by Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergen in Norway, have previously found a sort of toolkit for making ocher at the site, known as Blombos Cave, that dates back 100,000 years. That evidence shows that early Homo sapiens were clearly making ocher a long time ago, though for what purpose is unclear. And they've found a piece of ocher from about 70,000 years ago with engraved crosshatching on it.

It now seems that they weren't just scratching marks onto things, but also drawing on stone with ocher. "Our microscopic and chemical analyses of the pattern confirm that red ochre pigment was intentionally applied to the flake with an ochre crayon," Henshilwood and his team explain in the journal Nature.

Interior of Blombos Cave, where the drawn-on rock was found.
Magnus M. Haaland

To test their idea, the researchers made up a batch of ocher and used a wooden stick to paint it onto a similar shard of rock. They also made an ocher "crayon" and used that as well. The drawn lines matched the crayon application most closely. The researchers say that's an interesting distinction, suggesting that a crayon might have lasted longer, while ocher "paint" would have been prone to drying up quickly.

Research team member Karen van Niekerk, also from the University of Bergen, says these lines appear to be more than just random doodling. "The archaeological layer in which [the drawing] was found has yielded other indicators of symbolic thinking, such as shell beads covered with ochre and, more importantly, pieces of ochres engraved with abstract patterns," she writes in the journal Ecology & Evolution.

These people used different techniques and media, she says, supporting the hypothesis "that these signs were symbolic in nature and represented an inherent aspect of the spiritual wold of these African Homo sapiens," says van Niekerk.

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Archaeologists exploring caves in Indonesia have discovered a wall painting that could be the oldest figurative art ever found, and it depicts a cow. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, this is part of an underground bonanza of ancient cave art.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The limestone caves are tucked into remote mountains at the far eastern edge of the island of Borneo. Local people discovered the paintings when they climbed into the caves to harvest birds nests for soup. They told scientists about them. No one knew how old they were. Recently, archaeologist Maxime Aubert from Griffith University in Australia was able to date the rock they were painted on. He was amazed. The oldest were from 40,000 to over 50,000 years old, and some were clearly art.

MAXIME AUBERT: It really is like someone decided to depict what they saw, like an animal or, like, another human, and they did that on purpose.

JOYCE: One painting of a wild cow was at least 40,000 years old. That would make it the oldest figurative art by thousands of years. There is older artwork in Europe and Africa, but it's geometric drawings, lines and dots and hash marks or hand stencils made when you put a hand on a wall and blow liquid ochre over it. Cave art expert Genevieve von Petzinger at the University of Victoria in Canada says it's exciting but not that surprising. She thinks figurative art probably got started a lot earlier than people thought.

GENEVIEVE VON PETZINGER: I feel like we've been waiting for this now.


VON PETZINGER: My personal opinion is that our ancestors in Africa already knew how to do all this stuff.

JOYCE: Von Petzinger says archaeologists will probably find even older figurative art in Africa and elsewhere if they look long enough and in the right places. The Borneo cave art is described in the journal Nature. Besides paintings, there are lots of hand stencils and stick figures of people. Aubert says the painters kept at it for a period of 30,000 years. And their work got more complicated over time. He says it paints a picture, literally, of our ancestors' world that old bones or tools cannot.

AUBERT: Someone painted that. Then you see also, oh, yeah, they were doing ritual dances. They're wearing those headdresses. You can see all that. The rock art - it kind of talks to you. It kind of feels like, yeah, they kind of did that for me, you know?

JOYCE: And for families, apparently. In one cave, the scientists crawled through a narrow opening into a side chamber. Inside - more hand stencils but different.

AUBERT: You go in, and you look, and there's hand stencils there, but they're really small, you know. It's children.

JOYCE: Prehistoric kindergarten finger painting. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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