If a picture tells a thousand words, a cross-hatched design drawn on a piece of rock about 73,000 years ago could speak volumes.
The problem will be to understand what it tells us. The design, reported this week in Nature (CS Henshilwood et al. Nature https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0514-3; 2018), occurs on a lentil-sized rock, and found in Blombos The cave was discovered on the southern coast of South Africa by archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood and his colleagues. Using crayons made of red ocher, the authors say the layer creates an abstract design.
It’s hard to claim that the design is beautiful, flashy or captivating. But the artwork is destined to be priceless and famous, as it appears to be somewhat of the oldest evidence for a portrait in the archaeological record.
Apart from some cave paintings from Spain from about 64,000 years ago – possibly Neanderthal work (DL Hoffmann et al. Sci 359, 912–915; 2018) – the next example of drawing came with cave paintings from about 40,000 years ago was. Opposite ends of Eurasia: in the spectacular art that adorns the walls of caves in Spain and France, and recently discovered cave art in Sulawesi, Indonesia (M. Aubert et al. Nature 514, 223-227; 2014).
Despite being located 12,000 kilometers away, such cave paintings contain images that we immediately recognize as figurative art, including a series of animals, and stencils of hands that show signs of human self-awareness. As we talk to us after centuries.
A major difference to this latest piece is that it is a drawing – a design created by applying pigment – rather than an engraving, created by scratching or cutting a design into a surface. Engraving has a longer prehistory than art.
The earliest known engravings are on shell fragments from Trinil, Java, dated to about 540,000 years ago, before modern humans evolved, and possibly by Homo erectus. Other ancient engravings have been found around the world; All are extremely simple: just lines, sometimes cross-hatched.
There is nothing remotely similar to what we would recognize as imagery, and there is insufficient evidence to say whether they may represent something utilitarian, such as a tally stick or a calendar. So, were these Paleolithic hashtags really designed to convey meaning, or goofy graffiti? Other actions can result in unintentional bites, such as chopping foods, just like scratches left on a chopping board after cutting a loaf.
Conversely, it is very hard to dismiss a drawing. It is, to be sure, cross-hatched as an engraving from Blombos, but it could not have been made as an accidental by-product of some other process. Although intentionality is extremely difficult to prove, the authors examine the evidence they have—including a detailed study of the ocher remains—with forensic thoroughness.
It seems clear that the picture was a piece of something bigger, as some of the lines look like they continued on long-standing pieces. In addition, the authors attempted to reconstruct history using pieces of ocher, to show that such drawings could be made using crayons carved from ocher (rather than, say, by brushwork). ), and creating designs on such a piece of rock is possible only by the deliberate rotation of the design through an angle, similar to that of later artists who may have rotated their canvas.
It is no less than a surprise that the ancient artist chose to sketch with red ocher. The mineral consisting mainly of iron oxide has been used as a pigment since ancient times. The red color of its soil clearly meant a lot to the early modern human inhabitants of Blombos Cave and other nearby sites.
They used it as an ingredient in paints, and perhaps even as a sunscreen. Between 100,000 and 73,000 years ago, the people of this region produced artifacts thousands of years before humans elsewhere in the world, including finely worked stone and bone tools and engraved ocher fragments.
The early Homo sapiens who lived there were able to produce such designs, indicating that they had relatively ‘modern’ knowledge and behaviour. We cannot know why they made the marks, or what they represent; Unlike images of animals or hands, the abstract nature of the drawing gives no clue.
And it raises a fascinating question about the history of art. While humans living in South Africa 100,000 years ago were using technology as had yet to be imagined, they had not yet invented figurative art.
So, are the cave paintings of Lascaux and Sulawesi unrelated, independent inventions, or did modern humans create cave art elsewhere along the way, and then take it with them as they went out into the world? What is clear is that he started a trend that eventually led to Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, Bridget Riley and many of the greatest artists of today.