Archaeologists have uncovered what may be the oldest human-made drawings ever found. Discovered in a cave in South Africa, the cross-hatch pattern was drawn in red ochre and found to date back over 70,000 years, making the image more than 30,000 years older than the previous reigning champion.
The drawing is made up of six roughly-parallel vertical lines crossed by three curved horizontal lines, marked on a small fragment of silcrete – a cemented mixture of sand and gravel – that measures 38.6 mm long, 12.8 mm wide and 15.4 mm high (1.5 x 0.5 x 0.6 in). According to the researchers, the way the lines go right to the edges of the stone suggest that it’s just a fragment of a larger piece of work.
To get an idea of how the drawings were made, the researchers tried to recreate them in the lab. Marking silcrete flakes with both ochre crayons and paint, the team found that the ochre was the closest match, given the patchy nature of the material. These tests also suggest that the crayon had a tip measuring between 1.3 and 3.3 mm (0.05 and 0.13 in) wide.
The drawing itself may not seem too remarkable, given tens of thousands of years of art progress, but its age is the point of interest. It was found in sediment that’s around 73,000 years old, dating back to the Middle Stone Age. That makes it significantly older than previous evidence of drawing techniques, the earliest of which are 42,000-year old charcoal drawings of seals found in Spain.
Blombos Cave in South Africa, where the ochre drawing was discovered, has turned up dozens of ancient human artifacts since excavations began in 1991. The drawing, it turns out, is actually towards the younger end of the scale, with other objects like shell beads, tools and engravings found to be as old as 100,000 years.
The research was conducted by scientists from Norway’s University of Bergen and South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand. A paper on the study was published this Wednesday in the journal Nature.