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Trending Science: Have scientists discovered the oldest human drawing?

In a South African cave, archaeologists claim to have found the earliest known drawing made by humans.
Trending Science: Have scientists discovered the oldest human drawing?
Who would ever imagine that a 73 000-year-old drawing scrawled on a rock in an ancient cave looks like – well – a hashtag. What makes it even more fascinating is that it predates the previous oldest known drawings in Spain and Indonesia by at least 30 000 years.

In Blombos Cave some 300 km east of Cape Town, archaeologists unearthed what they’re calling the oldest known abstract pencil drawing by human hand. It was drawn by hunter-gatherers who made Blombos Cave their temporary home. The findings were published in the journal ‘Nature’.

Scientists have found older engravings around the world, but the lines on the stone mark the first abstract drawing. “The abrupt termination of all lines on the fragment edges indicates that the pattern originally extended over a larger surface. The pattern was probably more complex and structured in its entirety than in this truncated form,” archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergen in Norway and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa told ‘Reuters’. Henshilwood, who led the published research, added: “We would be hesitant to call it art. It is definitely an abstract design and it almost certainly had some meaning to the maker and probably formed a part of the common symbolic system understood by other people in this group.”

The design itself is very basic, but what’s important to note here is that it was sketched during the Middle Stone Age. The drawing was done with ochre, a clay earth pigment used by humans dating back at least 285 000 years. This suggests the existence of modern cognitive abilities in our ancestors.

“All these findings demonstrate that early Homo sapiens in the southern Cape used different techniques to produce similar signs on different media,” he said. “This observation supports the hypothesis that these signs were symbolic in nature and represented an inherent aspect of the advanced cognitive abilities [of] these early African Homo sapiens, the ancestors of all of us today.”

Can the world’s oldest drawing be called art?

In the study, Henshilwood and his international team of archaeologists describe the artefact as a drawing. But can it be labelled as art? “We don’t know that it’s art at all,” Henshilwood explained in ‘National Geographic’. “We know that it’s a symbol. [...] Art is a very hard thing to define. Look at some of Picasso’s abstracts. Is that art? Who’s going to tell you it’s art or not?”

Did an early human deliberately pick up a piece of ochre and use it to scratch a hashtag-like mark onto a piece of stone? Was it intended to depict an object or even an abstract concept? Sceptics might say the hash marks are nothing more than a doodle, just some early humans connecting with the world as they saw it at the time. Either way, the find is yet another exciting development in our understanding of early modern humans.

Source: Based on media reports

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