Drawing with ochre pencil on silcrete stone, found inside the Blombos cave. Photo: Craig Foster
  • Scientists have discovered a 73,000-year old sketch in ochre crayon in a cave in South Africa.
  • It is said to be the earliest human drawing.
  • The heritage site near Still Bay in the Western Cape has yielded a treasure trove of artefacts, which point to the cognitive development of early humans
  • Researchers say the new find shows that Homo sapiens in Africa were using symbols before they migrated into Europe.

Scientists have found the oldest known drawing by Homo sapiens: a 73,000-year old sketch in ochre crayon in a cave near Still Bay in the Western Cape. 

This is the earliest drawing ever found, and predates those in Europe by about 30,000 years, according to research published on Wednesday in scientific journal Nature.

Since excavation began in Blombos Cave in 1991, the site has yielded a treasure trove of artefacts and knowledge about the behaviour of our earliest human ancestors. It dates as far back as the Middle Stone Age, which was between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago.

Discoveries at Blombos cave, which is a heritage site, have included a 100,000-year-old ochre paint “workshop” and ancient shell beads, which show behaviour characteristic of modern humans.

Outside the Blombos cave. Photo: Magnus Haaland
Scientists working inside the Blombos cave. Photo: Ole F Unhammer

The latest discovery is inscribed on a smooth flake of silcrete rock: a number of lines etched in ochre.

After using electron microscopy and RAMAN spectroscopy to determine that the lines had been drawn on the stone, a team at the University of Bordeaux in France tried to recreate the material they were drawn with. Ultimately, they found that the lines were drawn in ochre with a tip less than 3mm thick.

The authors argue that the way that the lines end suggest that the pattern was once part of a much larger drawing, which may have been more complex.

The drawing shows that Blombos inhabitants were drawing symbols on rocks before humans entered Europe, they say. Symbolic thinking is considered characteristic of modern humans.

“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 Chris Henshilwood, lead author, research chair at the University of Witwatersrand, and director of the Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour at the University of Bergen in Norway.

Recent discoveries, including this one, “support a much earlier emergence for the production and use of symbols”, he says.

David Pearce, director of the Rock Art Research Institute and who was not involved in the research, says: “It certainly looks like a very exciting find.”

As does Alastair Pike, a professor of archaeological science at the University of South Hampton, who was also not involved in the research. He called it an "exciting discovery". "It shows that drawing is part of the repertoire of the earliest symbolic behaviours among humans which so far has been represented by other forms of pigment use (perhaps for body adornment), abstract engravings and the wearing of shell beads."

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