Ancient Art From a Modern Human

Archaeologists in South Africa have found what may be the oldest known art, dated at least 40,000 years before the earliest cave paintings in Europe. Some researchers argue that the find in Blombos Cave, published online by Science on 10 January, strengthens the case that modern human behavior arose much earlier than previously thought and that it took root in Africa long before spreading to Europe.

Most experts believe that Homo sapiens arose about 130,000 years ago in Africa, when anatomically modern humans debut in the fossil record. But evidence of modern behavior--such as the use of advanced hunting and fishing techniques and the creation of elaborate tools and art or other symbolic expression--has turned up only sporadically before 40,000 years ago. Since 1993, however, a team led by archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood of the South African Museum in Cape Town has been unearthing at Blombos Cave what it believes is proof of modern behavior during the Middle Stone Age period, which stretches from 250,000 to 40,000 years ago.

The newly described find, two chunks of red ochre engraved with geometric crosshatches, were recovered from 77,000-year-old cave deposits. They could be the best evidence yet that humans were capable of symbolic representation that long ago. The smaller piece, 53 millimeters long, has a series of X-like crosshatches, some struck through by a horizontal line. The larger chunk, about 76 mm long, features many X's traversed by three horizontal lines. Charred stone tools in the same soil layer and sand grains in an overlying dune establish the artifacts' date.

"This is clearly an intentionally incised, abstract geometric design," argues anthropologist Stanley Ambrose of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "It is art." Although many other researchers agree that the artist intended to symbolize something, some are not sure it's compelling proof that modern behavior was widespread that early. "I have a bit of trouble with the argument that this is now the evidence to displace all claims for the earliest modern behavior elsewhere," says anthropologist Meg Conkey of the University of California, Berkeley.

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More about the Blombos Cave project