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Blombos Cave Art

World's Oldest drawing: 71,000 BC
Engravings by early modern man

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Blombos Cave, famous site of Middle Paleolithic cave art by H. sapiens in Africa
View of Blombos Cave on the southwestern coast of South Africa, home of the world's earliest known drawing, and a key archaeological site for our understanding of modern Homo sapiens' cognitive development. Image by Vincent Mourre/Inrap. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Blombos Cave: Summary

The Blombos Cave complex comprises a single chamber high up in a cliff face, some 100 metres from the sea on the coast of South Africa, about 300 km east of Cape Town.

Excavations, begun in 1991 by Christopher Henshilwood, are ongoing.

The site has produced a number of important archaeological finds and has become a major centre of Stone Age culture of the Middle Paleolithic (300,000-45,000 BC).

It is formally protected as a provincial heritage site of the Western Cape.

Abstract drawing on ochre fragment created by modern Homo sapiens at Blombos Cave, South Africa
Oldest known drawing by human hands", discovered in Blombos Cave in South Africa. Dated to 71,000 BC. Photo by Henshilwood, C.S. et al. (New York Times, Sept 12, 2018) (Public Domain).

Why is Blombos Cave Important?

As far as paleolithic art goes, Blombos Cave has produced a treasure trove of Stone Age artifacts from occupation levels dating to between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago.

In particular, it is famous for producing some of the oldest art known to archaeology, in Africa. This art includes:

Note: For details of the oldest cave painting in Africa, please see: Apollo 11 Cave Stones (25,500 BC).

And to see how the Blombos Cave art fits into the evolution of art during the Stone Age, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Blombos Cave Engravings

In 2002, researchers at the cave discovered two engravings on fragments of ochre, dating to around 71,000 BC.

Both fragments had been carefully prepared and then engraved with abstract markings which formed a crosshatch pattern combined with several parallel incised lines.

Later, in 2009, thirteen more engravings were recovered from Blombos and dated to between 71,000 and 100,000 BC.

These finds, taken together with other finds - such as the Klasies River Caves engravings (100,000-85,000 BC) and the Diepkloof Eggshell Engravings (60,000 BC) - located in the same province, suggest that symbolic intent and tradition among H. sapiens were established in this region at an earlier date than previously thought.

Engraved ochre has also been found at other Middle Stone Age sites in South Africa, such as Klein Kliphuis (Western Cape), Wonderwerk Cave (Northern Cape) and Klasies River Caves (Eastern Cape), although none of it is as old as the Blombos material.

But see: Bilzingsleben Engravings (350,000-400,000 BC).

Taken in conjunction with the cave's advanced manufacture of tools, including bifacial points and polished bone tools, the Blombos Cave engravings provide an insight into an advanced people capable of generating and understanding symbols and abstraction, and show that modern H. sapiens acquired his artistic impulses at a far earlier stage than previously thought.

In the process, Blombos has become one of the most important paleolithic caves in Africa, and a centre of enquiry into the behaviours of early modern humans, before they migrated abroad.

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Why is the Blombos Cave Drawing Such a Big Deal?

In 2011, despite making several discoveries of rock engravings, and despite finding a number of used ochre 'crayons', researchers had found no sign of any drawings.

It was a real mystery. Then, as researchers were sifting through spear points and other artifacts recovered from the cave, they found a tiny fragment of silcrete stone adorned with a cross-hatched pattern of red ochre.

According to Henshilwood, the sudden termination of the red lines on each edge of the rock showed that the original pattern extended over a larger surface.

After 7 years of extensive testing, it was found that the nine red lines drawn on the object dated to 71,000 BC and were made by early African H. sapiens using an ochre crayon.

Why is the Blombos drawing so important? After all, archaeologists have found similar cross-hatch motifs engraved on bones and rocks that are far older.

The Trinil Shell engravings, for instance, date as far back as 540,000 BC. What's the big deal about a 71,000 BC drawing?

According to Henshilwood, the big difference between an ochre crayon drawing and a rock engraving, is that you can put a crayon into a bag and take it anywhere.

When you arrive, you can make a quick drawing or mark - on a stone or a piece of wood - and move on.

No need to make paint or carry stone engraving tools or find a proper surface to work on. It’s like having a ballpoint pen, he says. And it makes communication much easier and faster.

Cave Shell Jewellery

Another find of prehistoric art at Blombos, was a haul of over 70 marine shell beads from the sea snail species Nassarius kraussianus, dating to around 75,000 BC.

The small shells were decorated with ochre pigment, strung on cord or sinew and worn as personal ornaments in the form of necklaces or bracelets.

The haul is comparable with the earlier Los Aviones Cave Jewellery (113,000 BC) found in southeastern Spain, and also with the Krapina Eagle Jewellery (130,000 BC) from Hušnjakovo Hill, Croatia.

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Does Ochre Imply Art?

Ochre pigments are naturally occurring iron oxides, used by prehistoric hunter-gatherers as a colouring pigment for body-painting, as well as a mosquito repellent and a sun-screen.

Ochre "tool-kits" have been found in Africa, Europe and Australia since 300,000 BC. At Blombos, scientists discovered more than 8,000 pieces of ochre, dating to between 71,000-100,000 BC, including many which had been ground into crayons.

In addition, they recovered stones for grinding the ochre, a bone rod for stirring the liquefied ochre paste, and shells for storing it.

Despite a variety of uses, ochre is strongly associated with decorative art - in particular, face and body painting - as well as cave painting.

The fact that traces of ochre have been found at numerous sites of human occupation from the Middle Paleolithic period, suggests that both H. erectus and later species like H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens, employed this natural pigment to decorate themselves and their surroundings.

This alone implies a long-standing tradition of artistic behaviour stretching back into the Lower Paleolithic.

For more about the type of colour pigments used by later prehistoric cave painters in Africa and elsewhere, see Stone Age Colour Palette.

References

(1) "Engraved ochres from the Middle Stone Age levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa" - Christopher S.Henshilwood, Francesco d'Errico, Ian Watts. Journal of Human Evolution. Volume 57, Issue 1, July 2009, Pages 27-47.
(2) "An abstract drawing from the 73,000-year-old levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa". Henshilwood, Christopher S.; d'Errico, Francesco; van Niekerk, Karen L.; Dayet, Laure; Queffelec, Alain; Pollarolo, Luca. Nature. 562 (7725): 115–118.

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