Archaeologists Find the Earliest Work of “Abstract Art,” Dating Back 73,000 Years

Image by C. Fos­ter

Art, as we under­stand the term, is an activ­i­ty unique to homo sapi­ens and per­haps some of our ear­ly hominid cousins. This much we know. But the mat­ter of when ear­ly humans began mak­ing art is less cer­tain. Until recent­ly, it was thought that the ear­li­est pre­his­toric art dat­ed back some 40,000 years, to cave draw­ings found in Indone­sia and Spain. Not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, this is also when archae­ol­o­gists believed ear­ly humans mas­tered sym­bol­ic thought. New finds, how­ev­er, have shift­ed this date back con­sid­er­ably. “Recent dis­cov­er­ies around south­ern Africa indi­cate that by 64,000 years ago at the very least,” Ruth Schus­ter writes at Haaretz, “peo­ple had devel­oped a keen sense of abstrac­tion.”

Then came the “hash­tag” in 2018, a draw­ing in ochre on a tiny flake of stone that archae­ol­o­gists believe “may be the world’s old­est exam­ple of the ubiq­ui­tous cross-hatched pat­tern drawn on a sil­crete flake in the Blom­bos Cave in South Africa,” writes Krys­tal D’Costa at Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can, with the dis­claimer that the drawing’s cre­ators “did not attribute the same mean­ing or sig­nif­i­cance to [hash­tags] that we do.” The tiny arti­fact, thought to be around 73,000 years old, may have in fact been part of a much larg­er pat­tern that bore no resem­blance to any­thing hash­tag-like, which is only a con­ve­nient, if mis­lead­ing, way of nam­ing it.

The arti­fact was recov­ered from Blom­bos Cave in South Africa, a site that “has been under­go­ing exca­va­tion since 1991 with deposits that range from the Mid­dle Stone Age (about 100,000 to 72,000 years ago) to the Lat­er Stone Age (about 42,000 years ago to 2,000 years BCE).” These find­ings have been sig­nif­i­cant, show­ing a cul­ture that used heat to shape stones into tools and, just as artists in caves like Las­caux did, used ochre, a nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring pig­ment, to draw on stone. They made engrav­ings by etch­ing lines direct­ly into pieces of ochre. Archae­ol­o­gists also found in the Mid­dle Stone Age deposits “a toolk­it designed to cre­ate a pig­ment­ed com­pound that could be stored in abalone shells,” D’Costa notes.

Nicholas St. Fleur describes the tiny “hash­tag” in more detail at The New York Times as “a small flake, mea­sur­ing only about the size of two thumb­nails, that appeared to have been drawn on. The mark­ings con­sist­ed of six straight, almost par­al­lel lines that were crossed diag­o­nal­ly by three slight­ly curved lines.” Its dis­cov­er­er, Dr. Luca Pol­laro­lo of the Uni­ver­si­ty of the Wit­wa­ter­srand in Johan­nes­burg, express­es his aston­ish­ment at find­ing it. “I think I saw more than ten thou­sand arti­facts in my life up to now,” he says, “and I nev­er saw red lines on a flake. I could not believe what I had in my hands.”

The evi­dence points to a very ear­ly form of abstract sym­bol­ism, researchers believe, and sim­i­lar pat­terns have been found else­where in the cave in lat­er arti­facts. Pro­fes­sor Francesco d’Errico of the French Nation­al Cen­ter for Sci­en­tif­ic Research tells Schus­ter, “this is what one would expect in tra­di­tion­al soci­ety where sym­bols are repro­duced…. This repro­duc­tion in dif­fer­ent con­texts sug­gests sym­bol­ism, some­thing in their minds, not just doo­dling.”

As for whether the draw­ing is “art”… well, we might as well try and resolve the ques­tion of what qual­i­fies as art in our own time. “Look at some of Picasso’s abstracts,” says Christo­pher Hen­shilwood, an archae­ol­o­gist from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bergen and the lead author of a study on the tiny arti­fact pub­lished in Nature in 2018. “Is that art? Who’s going to tell you it’s art or not?”

Researchers at least agree the mark­ings were delib­er­ate­ly made with some kind of imple­ment to form a pat­tern. But “we don’t know that it’s art at all,” says Hen­shilwood. “We know that it’s a sym­bol,” made for some pur­pose, and that it pre­dates the pre­vi­ous ear­li­est known cave art by some 30,000 years. That in itself shows “behav­ioral­ly mod­ern” human activ­i­ties, such as express­ing abstract thought in mate­r­i­al form, emerg­ing even clos­er to the evo­lu­tion­ary appear­ance of mod­ern humans on the scene.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Hear a Pre­his­toric Conch Shell Musi­cal Instru­ment Played for the First Time in 18,000 Years

A Recent­ly-Dis­cov­ered 44,000-Year-Old Cave Paint­ing Tells the Old­est Known Sto­ry

40,000-Year-Old Sym­bols Found in Caves World­wide May Be the Ear­li­est Writ­ten Lan­guage

Was a 32,000-Year-Old Cave Paint­ing the Ear­li­est Form of Cin­e­ma?

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • David Whaley says:

    While it is inter­est­ing that it is being con­sid­ered art, how does this dif­fer from the tools of the Stone Age found with mark­ings on them housed by the smith­son­ian insti­tute and oth­er muse­ums around the world to enable it to be clas­si­fied as art ver­sus tool with mark­ings? I real­ize that abstrac­tism jus­ti­fi­ably mod­i­fied what could/can be clas­si­fied as art, but is this being to lenient on our def­i­n­i­tion of art ver­sus human devel­op­ment tool/ weapon? (Link pro­vid­ed pos­sess­es images of com­par­i­son)

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