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Oldest known drawing found in South African rock

Published: 12th November, 2018 at 00:00
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The L13 fragment features intersecting red lines and was found in South Africa’s Blombos Cave.

Here’s the work of a really old master. An international team of researchers have found what they believe to be the oldest known example of a drawing – a series
of crosshatched lines sketched onto a fragment of rock with a red ochre crayon 73,000 years ago.


Dubbed L13, the fragment was found among a number of stone tools, perforated shells and other material collected from the Blombos Cave in South Africa in 2011, a hollowing nestled inside a cliff face overlooking the Indian Ocean. It is believed that the cave was used as a resting place by early human hunters. Around 70,000 years ago the cave was sealed off by sand leaving the artefacts inside protected from the elements and well preserved.

After several years of microscopic and chemical analysis, along with experimental recreations of the pattern using various techniques, the team determined that the lines were drawn with a pointed ochre crayon and that the surface was first smoothed down by rubbing. The pattern is the earliest known drawing, preceding the oldest previously discovered works by at least 30,000 years, the researchers say.

It’s unclear what the symbol meant, if anything, to those who drew it. But there is other evidence that the first Homo sapiens in this region of Africa used different techniques to produce similar signs on different materials, which supports the theory that these markings served a symbolic function.

Cave art in La Pasiega, Spain, was daubed on the walls by Neanderthals some 64,000 years ago © P Saura


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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Science Focus Podcast.


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