scraped ocher from Blombos Cave

The oldest work of modern human art was once believed to be a piece of red ocher carved with zigzag lines found at Blombos cave in South Africa has been dated to about 100,000 years ago. Similar zigzag markings were made on a shell found in Indonesia dated to 430,000 years ago presumably made by homo erectus.

Smriti Rao of Discover wrote: Archaeologists working in Blombos Cave in South Africa found engraved red ochre, incised bone and pierced shells that were strung and presumably worn on the body—all from layers dated to 75,000 years ago; three shell beads from Israel and Algeria are said to date to more than 100,000 years ago; dozens of pieces of red ochre–many of which were ground for use as pigment–turned up in layers dating to 165,000 years ago in a cave at Pinnacle Point in South Africa [Scientific American].” Scientists debate wether these early engravings and body decorations were produced for aesthetic purposes or were a form of symbolism. [Source: Discovery News, Smriti Rao, Discover, March 3, 2010 /^]

The oldest things produced by early man that might qualify as art are carefully-crafted stone tools. Among these are 240,000-year-old blades made from long slivers of difficult-to-work lava from the Rift Valley in Kenya as well as beautifully-carved 90,000-year-old bone harpoon used to hunt giant catfish in present-day the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formally Zaire).

Some ocher sticks, dated to 77,000 years ago, have also been found in Blombos Cave near Capetown, South Africa. Made of red ocher mudstone, they have scratchings on them, widely recognized as art. One polished stone contains a geometric design consisting of crosshatching framed by two parallel lines with a third line down the middle. Some anthropologists regard them as the oldest known expressions of art and creativity. Inscribed ostrich shells dated to 60,000 years ago have been found at the Diepkloof site in South Africa

Delicate shell beads, dated to 75,000 years ago, have been found in Blombos Cave. The beads are made from tiny shells that have holes pierced in them, presumably so they could be strung together. They are considered art because they had no real practical utilitarian usage. It has been suggested that were jewelry or clothes decoration (or possible a kind of abacus, which would make them a tool).

Christopher Henshilwood, the leader of French, British and Norwegian team that found the beads, said: “These bead are symbolic and symbolism equates with modern human behavior. Perhaps they were used for painting and body ornamentation." Henshilwood is an archaeologist at Norway's University of Bergen and the University of Witwterstand in South Africa," Blombus Caves is not far from a large swath of property owned by his grandfather. Henshilwood's team also found the ocher sticks.

Websites and Resources on Prehistoric Art: Chauvet Cave Paintings ; Cave of Lascaux; Trust for African Rock Art (TARA); Bradshaw Foundation; Australian and Asian Palaeoanthropology, by Peter Brown Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program ; Institute of Human Origins ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site ; Talk Origins Index ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Evolution of Modern Humans ; Human Evolution Images; Hominin Species ; Paleoanthropology Links ; Britannica Human Evolution ; Human Evolution ; National Geographic Map of Human Migrations ; Humin Origins Washington State University ; University of California Museum of Anthropology; BBC The evolution of man"; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Human Evolution Timeline ; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) ; PBS Evolution: Humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library; Human Evolution: you try it, from PBS; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog ; New Scientist: Human Evolution;

Websites and Resources on Neanderthals: Wikipedia: Neanderthals Wikipedia ; Neanderthals Study Guide ; Neandertals on Trial, from PBS; The Neanderthal Museum ; The Neanderthal Flute, by Bob Fink . Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization); The Leakey Foundation; The Stone Age Institute; The Bradshaw Foundation ; Turkana Basin Institute; Koobi Fora Research Project; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa ; Blombus Cave Project; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution; American Journal of Physical Anthropology; Evolutionary Anthropology; Comptes Rendus Palevol ; PaleoAnthropology

Books: “Cave Art” by Jean Clottes (Phaidon, 2008); “The Cave Painters” by Gregory Curtis (2006), with interesting insights offer by a non-specialist; “The Nature of Paleolithic Art” by R. Dale Guthrie (2005); “Images of the Past” by Douglas I. Price and Gary M. Feinman (McGraw-Hill, 2006); “The Human Past: World Prehistory & the Development of Human Societies’ edited by Chris Scarre (Thames & Hudson, 2005); “The Dawn of European Art: An Introduction to Palaeolithic Cave Painting” by André Leroi-Gourhan (Cambridge University Press, 1982); “The Origin of Modern Humans” by Roger Lewin (Scientific American Library, 1993).

Earliest Known Engraving: Shows Sophistication of Homo Erectus

Homo erectus engraving

A zigzag pattern found on the fossilised shell, dated to 430,000 years ago, in Java, Indonesia is believed to be the world’s earliest known engraving. It is thought to have been by homo erectus, demonstrating the species manual dexterity and perhaps symbolism and art. Australian Associated Press reported: “The find, reported in the journal Nature on Thursday, predates by some 300,000 years other markings made by modern humans or Neanderthals, previously thought the oldest. The age and location of the shell suggests the pattern was carved by an even earlier human ancestor known as Homo erectus. “It rewrites human history,” said Dr Stephen Munro, the Australian National University paleoanthropologist who made the find. [Source: Australian Associated Press, December 3, 2014]

“It suggests Homo erectus had considerable manual dexterity and possibly greater cognitive abilities, and raises the prospect that they might have been more “human” than previously thought. “That’s something people will argue about,” Munro said. Munro then worked with international colleagues to accurately date the shell and to check that the engraving wasn’t a more recent addition. They found that the engraving was indeed made before fossilisation occurred, probably between 430,000 and 540,000 years ago. It’s unclear whether the pattern was intended as art or served some other purpose.

“The ancient find would have been impossible without the very modern technology of digital photography. The shells, first discovered by celebrated Dutch scientist Eugene Dubois a century ago, have been packed away in boxes for years. On a Dutch public holiday in May 2007, Munro seized the opportunity to photograph every one. It took him all day. When he returned to Australia and flicked through the photos, one in particular stood out. An engraving, all but invisible to the naked eye, was quite clear. “It was a eureka moment,” he said. “I could see immediately that they were man-made engravings. There was no other explanation.”“

77,000-Year-Old Etched Ocher: Once Regarded as World’s Oldest Art

shell with homo erectus engraving

Christopher Henshilwood of the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and the University of Bergen, Norway discovered what some regard as the world’s oldest artwork — a piece of ocher with some 77,000-year-old ethings on them, Chip Walter wrote in National Geographic: . Some of his most memorable discoveries have come from Blombos Cave, 28 miles east of Klipdrift, near an area where he used to play as a kid. One day in 2000 his team dug out a small block of engraved red ocher a bit smaller than a flip phone. Ocher is common in this part of Africa and has been used for millennia for everything from body paint to a food preservative. This piece, though, was different: Roughly 75,000 years in the past, some clever person had carefully etched on it a pattern of overlapping, parallel, triangular markings. [Source: Chip Walter, National Geographic, January 2015 ]

“No one knows the meaning of those marks, which have since been found on 13 other pieces of ocher. A signature? Calculations? A primeval grocery list? Whatever their elusive purpose, they were 35,000 years older than any other undisputed evidence of symbolic behavior known at the time. Controversy dogged the discovery at first. Some scientists attacked the little rock as a one-off, nothing but random scratchings or idiosyncratic doodling. “They said it was meaningless,” says Henshilwood. “They said everything negative you could possibly think.” In time, however, others regarded it as a breakthrough.

“Soon more examples of symbol and ornament were uncovered. Henshilwood’s team discovered the shells of little sea snails called Nassarius that were some 75,000 years old and perforated, with evidence they had been strung together. Blombos itself kept yielding treasures: finely carved and decorated bone tools, and evidence that as long as 100,000 years ago the cave’s inhabitants had methodically ground ocher into fine powder and mixed it with other ingredients to make a paste. Stored in abalone shells—the earliest known containers—it could have been used as a decorative paint for bodies, faces, tools, or clothing. In 2009 Henshilwood reported finding more ocher and rocks marked with deliberate cross-hatchings, also dating as far back as 100,000 years” as well as 49 beads smeared with ochre.

100-000-Year-Old “Paint” Found in South Africa’s Blombos Cave

Blombos Cave

Brian Vastag wrote in the Washington Post, “A hundred thousand years ago... a craftsman — or woman — sat in a cave overlooking the Indian Ocean, crushed a soft rusty red rock, mixed it inside a shell with charcoal and animal marrow, and dabbed it on something — maybe a face, maybe a wall. Before the person left, he or she stacked the shell and grindstones in a neat pile, where they lay undisturbed for a hundred millennia. [Source: Brian Vastag, Washington Post, October 13, 2011 +++]

“Unearthed in 2008 and described in the journal Science, these paint “tool kits," researchers say, push deeper into human history the evidence for artistic impulses and complex, planned behavior. Previously, the oldest evidence of ochre paint was found at another site in South Africa dated to about 60,000 years ago." “They probably understood basic chemistry," said Christopher Henshilwood, the archaeologist who led the discovery team. +++

“Traces of paint on the tools show that the cave — dwellers mixed ochre — red or yellow minerals that contain metal oxides — with bone marrow, charcoal, flecks of quartz, and a liquid, probably water. With ground ochre as the base, the marrow and charcoal acted as binders. The quartz could have made the compound sticky, with water — in the right amount — providing the proper consistency. Paint experts at the Louvre in Paris performed the analysis. +++

“This deliberate mixture “implies that people at the time had complex cognition," said Lyn Wadley, an archaeologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Wadley studies early ochre paint but was not involved in the research. “They could . . . multitask and think in abstract terms," Wadley said. The cave, called Blombos, sits in a cliff on the coast of South Africa about 180 miles east of Cape Town. It shows signs of human use starting 130,000 years ago. Protected from wind and rain and close to seafood, antelope and other game, the cave apparently made for an inviting stopover for wave after wave of nomadic hunter-gatherers. Henshilwood, who splits his time between the University of Bergen in Norway and Witwatersrand, began excavating Blombos in 1992, digging through layers of animal bones, crustacean shells and other evidence of occupation during the Paleolithic, or Stone Age. +++

“But the deepest layer, which the team reached in 2008, was different. Instead of scattered remains, two tidy “tool kits” emerged, covered by sand. Both included fist-size abalone shells and lay in neat piles. In one kit, a round stone sat inside the shell. Six other grinding or pounding stones were arrayed around the shell and were probably used to smash the ochre. A small slab — a grinding stone — rested on top of the assemblage. A shoulder blade from a seal revealed evidence of heating and marrow extraction, and paint at the end of a thin forearm bone from a dog or a wolf showed that it was used to spread the paint, Henshilwood said. +++

Ochre comes in colors from mellow yellow to raging red. Whoever made the ancient paint selected only the brightest of reds. “It could've been ornamental," Henshilwood said. Even today, groups in southern Africa paint their faces and torsos with ochre to identify which group they belong to or whether they're married. Ochre paint can also serve as a sunscreen and an insect repellant. +++

“For whatever reasons the paint was made, early humans had a fondness for ochre. “Nearly all South African sites from the Paleolithic show ochre, and it has been found at ancient sites in the Middle East and Europe, Henshilwood said. But all of those finds are tens of thousands of years younger than the Blombos paint kits.

“The cave walls show no paintings, but quickly accreting limestone would have obscured any obvious signs, Henshilwood said. He plans to return with lights that can detect traces of ochre paint. If he finds any on the walls, it would push deeper into the past solid evidence of the human artistic impulse. The oldest known cave paintings, in France, are about 35,000 years old.” +++

Early Art in Africa

Chip Walter wrote in National Geographic: “Nassarius beads have been dated to 82,000 years ago at a site called Grotte des Pigeons (Pigeon Cave) in Taforalt, Morocco. At the opposite end of the Mediterranean, similar beads from two Israeli caves, Qafzeh and Skhul, were dated to 92,000 and at least 100,000 years ago. Back in South Africa, a 2010 team led by the University of Bordeaux’s Pierre-Jean Texier reported finding 60,000-year-old engraved ostrich eggshells in Diepkloof Rock Shelter north of Cape Town. [Source: Chip Walter, National Geographic, January 2015]

“Compared with the jaw-dropping beauty of the art created in Chauvet Cave 65,000 years later, artifacts like these seem rudimentary. But creating a simple shape that stands for something else—a symbol, made by one mind, that can be shared with others—is obvious only after the fact. Even more than the cave art, these first concrete expressions of consciousness represent a leap from our animal past toward what we are today—a species awash in symbols, from the signs that guide your progress down the highway to the wedding ring on your finger and the icons on your iPhone.

“There’s something else telling about these early African and Middle Eastern eruptions of symbolism: They come, and then they go. The beads, the paint, the etchings on ocher and ostrich egg—in each case, the artifacts show up in the archaeological record, persist in a limited area for a few thousand years, and then vanish. The same applies to technological innovations. Bone harpoon points, found nowhere else before 45,000 years ago, have been uncovered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in sediments nearly twice that old. In South Africa two relatively complex stone and bone tool traditions appear—the Still Bay 75,000 years ago and the Howieson’s Poort 65,000 years ago. But the latter lasted just 6,000 years, the former 4,000. Nowhere has a tradition been found to spread across space and through time, gathering richness and diversity, until just before 40,000 years ago, when art began to appear more commonly across Africa, Eurasia, and Australasia. As far east as the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (Celebes), stenciled handprints—once thought of as an invention of the European Upper Paleolithic—were recently shown to be almost 40,000 years old.

20120206-australia Anbangbang_gallery_Mimi_rock_art_cropped.jpg
Australia's Anbangbang gallery Mimi Rock

Early Modern Human Art in Australia

Another candidate of the world's oldest art are some mysterious cuplike designs and circular coin-like impression made on great orange boulders in a rock formations at the Jinmium site on the coast of Northern Territory in Australia. The impressions have been found on numerous boulders. In almost every case they have the same depth and the same 1.2-inch diameter width. One boulder has 3,500 markings. Scientists theorize the boulders may have marked important food sources or provided directions. Aboriginals in the area believe the markings represent ancestral being that turned to stone.

Richard Fullagar, an anthropologist at the Australian Museum in Sydney, dated the impressions and markings using the latest dating methods to be 75,000 years old, an astonishing date. The famous paleolithic cave paintings in France and Spain, by contrast, are 25,000 years old.

Using the thermolumiscence dating method, David Price of the School of Geosciences at the University of Woolonggong, has dated artifacts and ocher found in a rock shelter at Jinmium at 116,000 years old. Price dated a hand tool to be 176,000 years old — an even more astounding date that is hard to believe and would throw off many theories if it turns out to be true.

Hematite "crayons" dated with a new technique called optically simulated luminescence (which determines when sediments were last exposed to sunlight) are estimated to be between 53,000 and 60,000 years old. Researchers from the Australian National University in Canberra told National Geographic, "It's high-grade hematite. Ancient people ground it into red ocher powder. That means they had an interest in either coloring their bodies for ceremonies, painting clan designs on themselves, or putting art on walls or designs on their boomerangs."

The oldest rock paintings in Australia confirmed by carbon dating are 20,000 years old. An image of pregnancy drawn with ocher on a rock has been dated to be 35,000 years old using other dating methods. Some believe that other rock paintings may be 35,000 or 40,000 years old. A 30,000 year old piece of chiseled ocher was found at Lake Mungo.

An image of a pair birds found in Arnhem Land in northern Australia has been dated as being older than 40,000 years old because that is when the bird species in the image is thought to have gone extinct. Some have asserted it is Australia's oldest painting. The bird in question looks like an emu but is thought to be the megafauna bird genyornis, which has large, thick toes and shorter legs than an emu.

Early Modern Human Ornaments

20120206-CroMagnon 44.jpg
During the Aurignacian cultural period (about 40,000 to 28,000 years ago), modern humans wore rings, beads, pendants, anklets and necklaces made from bear, fox, or lion teeth interspersed with seas shells or ivory beads and other carefully-crafted personal adornments made of ivory, soapstone, bone, marine and freshwater shells, fossil coral, limestone, schist, talc-shistlignite, hematite, pyrite, teeth from other animals and the fossilized shells of extinct squids. [Source: Randal White, Natural History, May, 1993]

Early modern humans were very choosy about the materials chosen for ornaments. Only teeth of certain animals were selected. Of the thousand or so shell species available only a dozen were chosen. Facsimiles of shells and animal teeth were sometimes made with soapstone. Beads were sewn into clothing and carnivore teeth were used in belts and headbands.

Ivory was used almost exclusively to create adornments, not weapons or tools. Modern humans developed various techniques for working ivory, including drilling, gouging, carving and polishing it with metallic abrasives such as hematite. Some items have been found hundreds of miles from their sources, which seems to indicate that some form of trade existed.

The inhabitants of the Russian site of Sungir made elaborate personal ornaments of ivory and schist that often were in the form of abstract geometric designs. These include a wheel-like carved ivory disk, found in the 28,000-year-old grave of two children. See Burials

Beads found in France, dated to between 33,000 and 32,000 years ago, were made in several steps. First pencil-like rods were fashioned from ivory or soapstone and then inscribed and broken off in half-inch to three-quarter-inch sections. They were then perforated — by gouging the top of the section from both sides and meeting in the middle — and ground and polished into a bead with a hematite abrasive.

At a 36,000 year-old site in the Don Valley of Russia, archaeologists found beads from an amber-like mineral called belemnite that had been drilled from each side. Experiments have shown that each bead took about an hour to make. At a 20,000-year-old site called Sungir near Vladimir and Moscow, Russia an adult was buried with 3,000 beads and a child was found with 5,000 beads, representing between 3,000 and 5,000 hours of work. Scientists have speculated that beads buried with the child either were an expression of extreme grief or an indication of the child's high status.

World's Oldest Jewelry

conch shell jewelry from Blombos Cave

Becky Wragg Sykes wrote in The Guardian: The earliest examples of jewelry “keep getting pushed back in time: they currently stand at about 75,000 years ago, and maybe as much as 100,000 years ago. At one site in South Africa, we even have the first evidence of style as we know it, with a shift in the way shell beads were strung together over time.” [Source: Hadley Freeman, fashion expert, Becky Wragg Sykes, The Guardian May 20, 2013]

The earliest known jewellery was found in caves on the slopes of Mount Carmel in Israel. Alok Jha wrote in The Guardian: “Dated to around 100,000 years ago, the ancient shells and beads had similar holes made into them, which would have allowed them to be strung together into a necklace or bracelet. They represent an early comprehension of symbolic behaviour – wearing jewellery sends messages of identity and self-expression to those around us.” [Source: Alok Jha, The Guardian, November 15, 2012 |=|]

Chip Walter wrote in National Geographic: “Nassarius beads have been dated to 82,000 years ago at a site called Grotte des Pigeons (Pigeon Cave) in Taforalt, Morocco. At the opposite end of the Mediterranean, similar beads from two Israeli caves, Qafzeh and Skhul, were dated to 92,000 and at least 100,000 years ago. [Source: Chip Walter, National Geographic, January 2015]

100,000-Year Perforated Shells from Israel and Algeria: the World’s Oldest Jewelry?

In 2006, scientists said 100,000-year-old beads from sites in Algeria and Israel may represent the oldest known attempt at self-adornment. The beads, made from shells with holes bored into them, are 25,000 years older than similar beads discovered in 2004 ago in South Africa, the scientists reported in a June 2006 issue of the journal Science. "Our paper supports the scenario that modern humans in Africa developed behaviors that are considered modern quite early in time, so that in fact these people were probably not just biologically modern but also culturally and cognitively modern, at least to some degree," said study co-author Francesco d'Errico of the National Center for Scientific Research in Talence, France. [Source: Randolph E. Schmid, Associated Press, June 22, 2006 /*]

Randolph E. Schmid of Associated Press wrote: In the past some researchers have argued that the ability to use symbolism did not develop until people had migrated to Europe some 35,000 to 40,000 years ago. Alison Brooks, head of the anthropology department at George Washington University, said the new find reinforces that people developed behaviors gradually. That this find is older than the beads uncovered in South Africa "does not surprise me," she said in a telephone interview. "There were no revolutions in human behavior, there was a gradual accumulation of behaviors." The perforated shells from Blombos in South Africa and those now coming to light are of the same genus, Nassarius, she noted. "So, the question is, is this a single cultural tradition? Probably not," she concluded. "Clearly it's learned behavior."/*\

“By the time people were populating Europe, behavior had continued to develop and beads were being made from teeth, bone, stone, "every sort of material," said Brooks, who was not part of the research team. "It just is improbable that that sprang from nothing, and this is a logical antecedent." Sally McBrearty, an anthropology professor at the University of Connecticut, also was pleased with the find extending the time range for such symbolic activity. "It's the category of object that everybody is willing to accept as being something that signals modern behavior," McBrearty said. "It's not quite as wonderful as Blombos ... but it is fairly securely dated." McBrearty was not part of the research team. /*\

“The new find involves just three shells, two from Skhul in Israel the researchers said were about 100,000 years old and one from Oued Djebbana, Algeria, estimated to be 90,000 years old. The researchers said the shells were found many miles from the sea, indicating they were brought to those locations deliberately, most likely for beadworking. Brooks agreed, adding that the shells are too small to have had any food value. "I think we're looking at symbolic value ... it's very exciting," she said. D'Errico had been part of the group that found the earlier perforated shells at Blombos and he and other scientists were trying to find similar beads in other locations. /*\

“The newly identified shells were found in a study of museum collections. The shells from Skhul were excavated in the 1930s. The researchers were able to date them by comparing sediment stuck to one of them with layers containing human skeletons that were 100,000 or more years old. The Algerian site was excavated in the 1940s and the researchers said the date of 90,000 years is based on the technology and style of the stone tools found there. /*\

perforated shells from Blombos Cave

82,000-Year-Old Shell Jewelry Found in Morocco Cave

In 2007, archaeologists announced that they found tiny shells coated in red clay, dated to 82,000 years ago, in the Grotte des Pigeons at Taforalt in eastern Morocco. They were described as one the oldest known forms of human ornamentation. Kate Ravilious wrote in National Geographic: “Each shell has a hole pierced through it and a covering of red ochre, an ancient pigment made from clay. "The fact that they are colored and have deliberate perforations indicates that they were used as ornamentation," said Nick Barton from the University of Oxford in England, one of the archaeologists on the team. Some of the shell "beads" show signs of wear inside the perforation, indicating that they were strung together as necklaces or bracelets. "They were definitely meant to be seen," Barton said. [Source: Kate Ravilious, National Geographic, June 7, 2007 |]

“The shells come from a genus of marine snail called Nassarius, which is not found along the Moroccan shoreline today. The nearest place where the snails live is an island off Tunisia that lies more than 800 miles (1,280 kilometers) away. "It is possible that these beads were brought here from Tunisia and were very special objects," Barton said. In a paper published in the June 2007 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the archaeologists suggest that the beads mark a shift in human development and the beginnings of modern cultural behavior. "We think that they were capable of thinking symbolically and able to use one thing to represent another," Barton said. Possibly the beads were used to establish group identity and indicate where certain people belonged. Similar cultural signs, such as specialized tools and personal decoration, didn't arrive in Europe until around 40,000 years ago. |

“The Moroccan find is not the first example of ancient Nassarius shells that might have been beads. In June 2006 the same team reported that snail shells found at sites in Israel and Algeria were likely to be the world's oldest bead jewelry. Initial analysis of the shells from Israel indicated them to be between 100,000 and 135,000 years old, while the Algerian shells were determined to be more than 35,000 years old. |

“For their latest study the team established the Moroccan shells' ages using four different dating techniques. This means the beads qualify as the world's oldest, they say, because the shells are the only ones to be dated so conclusively. Abdeljalil Bouzouggar, from the Moroccan Institute of Archaeology, and colleagues found the shells in the Grotte des Pigeons alongside burnt stone remains in well-layered soil. The team has also uncovered similar shells at other sites in Morocco and are currently awaiting dating results. "Shells from other sites may turn out to be even older," Barton said, "and we may well be looking at ornamentation beyond a hundred thousand years ago."” |

60,000-Year-Old Etched Ostrich Eggs from South Africa

ostrich shell engravings from Diepkloof Rock Shelter

Smriti Rao of Discover wrote: “A cache of ostrich eggshell fragments discovered by archaeologists in South Africa could be instrumental in understanding how humans approached art and symbolism as early as the Stone Age. The eggshells, engraved with geometric designs, may indicate the existence of a symbolic communication system around 60,000 years ago among African hunter-gatherers [Source: Discovery News, Smriti Rao, Discover, March 3, 2010 /^]

“At a site known as the Diepkloof Rock Shelter, a team led by archaeologist Pierre-Jean Texier discovered fragments of 25 ostrich eggs that date back 55,000 to 65,000 years. In an online paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the archeologists revealed that the eggshell fragments were etched with several kinds of motifs, including parallel lines with cross-hatches and repetitive non-parallel lines. The scientists are confident that the markings are almost certainly a form of messaging — of graphic communication [ScienceNow, BBC]. /^\

“Further study of the fragments revealed that a hole had been drilled at the top of some eggshells, suggesting that the hunter-gatherers could have used them as water containers during long hunts in arid regions, as the Kalahari hunter-gatherers were known to do in more recent history. Scientists estimate that each egg could have held one liter of water. The patterns on the shells, they propose, could have been a symbolic way of acknowledging the individual who used the canteen, or which community or family the user belonged to. For scientists studying human origins, the capacity for symbolic thought is considered a giant leap in human evolution, and [what] sets our species apart from the rest of the animal world [BBC]. /^\

“Texier says the Diepkloof eggshells are special, because so many fragments were found with similar designs, and because engraving the tough ostrich shells would have been a hard task–showing that the designs were not merely scratched-in doodles. The hunter-gatherers also colored their shells by baking them.” /^\

40,800-Year-Old Spanish Cave Art “Panel of Hands”: Oldest Cave Art?

The 'Panel of Hands' in El Castillo Cave is a series of red disks and hand stencils made by blowing or spitting paint onto the wall. A date from a disk shows the painting to be older than 40,800 years making it among the oldest known cave art in Europe. Some bison overlay the hands and are therefore painted later. [Source: Seth Borenstein, Associated Press, June 14, 2012]

Seth Borenstein of Associated Press wrote: “Testing the coating of paintings in 11 Spanish caves, researchers found that one is at least 40,800 years old, which is at least 15,000 years older than previously thought. That makes them older than the more famous French cave paintings by thousands of years. Scientists dated the Spanish cave paintings by measuring the decay of uranium atoms, instead of traditional carbon-dating, according to a report released Thursday by the journal Science. The paintings were first discovered in the 1870s.

“The oldest of the paintings is a red sphere from a cave called El Castillo. About 25 outlined handprints in another cave are at least 37,300 years old. Slightly younger paintings include horses. Cave paintings are "one of the most exquisite examples of human symbolic behavior," said study co-author Joao Zilhao, an anthropologist at the University of Barcelona. "And that, that's what makes us human." There is older sculpture and other portable art. Before the latest test, the oldest known cave paintings were those France's Chauvet cave, considered between 32,000 and 37,000 years old.”

A novel dating technique was used to date the Spanish cave art. Jason Daley wrote in Discover: “Measuring the age of the cave paintings found across Europe is confounding because most images are made from inorganic pigments that leave few clues. Archaeologist Alistair Pike, now at the University of Southampton, described a clever way to get answers: Analyze the breakdown of radioactive uranium-234 embedded in the natural mineral crust that forms on top of the artworks. Pike and his team applied the technique to drawings from 11 caves in the Cantabria and Asturias regions of northern Spain. They pegged the age of one illustration—a red disk in El Castillo cave—at 40,800 years old, making it the oldest known piece of European art by more than 5,000 years. [Source: Jason Daley, Discover, January 2, 2013

Nikhil Swaminathan wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Rather than directly examining the art, scientists instead analyzed calcium carbonate (calcite) crusts that covered the paintings. They used a technique called uranium-thorium dating. The calcite covering, which is formed by the same process as stalagmites and stalactites, contains trace amounts of uranium, which decays over time into thorium. Using mass spectrometry, scientists can measure thorium in a calcite sample as small as a grain of rice to arrive at an approximate date when the crust formed. That date is the minimum possible age of the art behind it.” [Source: Nikhil Swaminathan, Archaeology magazine, Volume 65 Number 5, September/October 2012]

40,800-Year-Old Spanish Cave Art: Made by Neanderthals?

The painted works described above may predate the arrival of modern humans in the area the artworks were made, therefore it would not be presumptuous to presume they might have been made by Neanderthals. The earliest remains of modern humans in Europe is a 41,500-year-old mandible found in the Romanian cave Pestera cu Oase. The earliest fossils of Neanderthals in Europe are dated at 430,000 years ago. If modern humans made the art works, it would safe to assume they arrived with some already-developed artistic skills, although there evidence of cave art in Africa older than 40,000 years old.

Seth Borenstein of Associated Press wrote: “What makes the dating of the Spanish cave paintings important is that it's around the time when modern humans first came into Europe from Africa. Study authors say they could have been from modern humans decorating their new digs or they could have been the working of the long-time former tenant of Europe: the Neanderthal. Scientists said Neanderthals were in Europe from about 250,000 years ago until about 35,000 years ago. Modern humans arrived in Europe about 41,000 to 45,000 years ago — with some claims they moved in even earlier — and replaced Neanderthals. "There is a strong chance that these results imply Neanderthal authorship," Zilhao said. "But I will not say we have proven it because we haven't." [Source: Seth Borenstein, Associated Press, June 14, 2012]

Zilhao said Neanderthals recently have gotten "bad press" over their abilities. They decorated their tools and bodies. So, he said, they could have painted caves. But there's a debate in the scientific community about Neanderthals. Other anthropologists say Zilhao is in a minority of researchers who believe in more complex abilities of Neanderthals.

“Eric Delson, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and John Shea at Long Island's Stony Brook University said the dating work in the Science paper is compelling and important, but they didn't quite buy the theory that Neanderthals could have been the artists. "There is no clear evidence of paintings associated with Neanderthal tools or fossils, so any such evidence would be surprising," Delson said. He said around 41,000 years ago Neanderthals were already moving south in Europe, away from modern humans and these caves. Shea said it is more likely that modern humans were making such paintings in Africa even earlier, but the works didn't survive because of the different geology on the continent. "The people who came in to Europe were very much like us. They used art, they used symbols," Shea said. "”

In order to prove Neanderthals were cave artists, Delson believes archaeologists need to find bones or tools in a cave layer that corresponds directly to the art on a wall. Zilhão disagrees. "You don't have to have both the art and the occupation in the same site," he says, noting that there are no associated human remains at caves famous for their Paleolithic art, such as Chauvet. "These are just places where people went to make this stuff." [Source: Nikhil Swaminathan, Archaeology magazine, Volume 65 Number 5, September/October 2012]

Maltravieso handprints

Art by Modern Humans in Europe

Michael Balter wrote in “Homo sapiens first colonized Europe from Africa around 40,000 years ago. But until the early 1990s, there was little firm evidence that our species engaged in sophisticated artistic activity that early. Many archaeologists assumed that modern humans developed their artistic skills only gradually, culminating in spectacular galleries like the 15,000-year-old painted caves at Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. The discovery of Chauvet changed all that and convinced most researchers that early artists had brought their skills with them from Africa. [Source: Michael Balter,, May. 14, 2012 ^=^]

“Yet for years Chauvet seemed to stand alone, leading some archaeologists to question whether its dating—based in large part on radiocarbon samples taken directly from its charcoal paintings—was correct. Nevertheless, evidence for other art of about the same age continued to accumulate. At Fumane Cave in Italy, for example, archaeologists found depictions of animals and what appeared to be a half-human, half-beast figure, dated to about 37,000 years ago or even older, although the error ranges for the dates were fairly wide.” ^=^

Abri Castanet

Michael Balter wrote in “Since 1994, the year of Chauvet's discovery, a team led by archaeologist Randall White of New York University in New York City has been working at the Abri Castanet, a rock shelter (a shallow cave usually at the base of a cliff) in southern France's Vezere valley. Originally excavated in the early 20th century, the Abri Castanet has long been considered one of the earliest modern human sites in Europe, with occupation layers dated back to nearly 40,000 years ago. White's excavations have uncovered considerable evidence of symbolic and artistic activity at the site, including hundreds of pierced snail shells apparently used as ornaments and three limestone blocks adorned with engravings, including one the team interprets as a vulva. But the blocks, which came from the shelter's collapsed roof, were impossible to date because they do not contain the kind of organic matter necessary for radiocarbon analysis. [Source: Michael Balter,, May. 14, 2012 ^=^]

“In 2007, however, the team began excavating another large block that had fallen from the roof and directly onto a segment of the cave floor once occupied by prehistoric humans. As White and his colleagues broke the stone slab into sections and lifted them out, they discovered that the underside had been engraved with another vulva-like image (see photo). When they sent the bones of reindeer and other animals from the cave floor to the University of Oxford's radiocarbon dating lab for analysis, the dates clustered tightly between 36,000 and 37,000 years ago. And because there was no accumulation of sediments or other deposits between the archaeological layer and the stone slab, the team argues that the painted cave ceiling must be at least as old as the bones. ^=^

“That would mean that the artworks at Abri Castanet are also at least as old as those at Chauvet, White and co-workers conclude in a paper published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Because these images of vulvas are very different from the charcoal and ochre drawings at Chauvet, the team thinks that regional differences in artistic traditions were already established in Europe by that time, even at sites like Chauvet and Abri Castanet that are only a few hundred kilometers apart. ^=^

“One key difference, White says, is that whereas the paintings at Chauvet are hidden deep within that cave and away from living areas, the depictions at Abri Castanet were on the rock shelter ceiling right above the spaces where prehistoric humans slept and ate, making them a kind of everyday and public art.” ^=^

World Oldest Vulva Engraving

20120205-Vulva images in La Ferrassie.jpg
Vulva images in La Ferrassie cave
Nikhil Swaminathan wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Archaeologists have dated an engraving of a vulva found on a one-and-a-half-ton limestone block at Abri Castanet, a collapsed rock shelter in France, to about 37,000 years ago. That figure, however, is only a minimum age for the rock carving. The date, announced in May, actually corresponds to the approximate time when the rock shelter’s roof, of which the engraved block was once a part, collapsed. The engraving is thus one of the earliest examples of European wall art, likely older than the elaborate paintings 200 miles east in Chauvet Cave. [Source: Nikhil Swaminathan, Archaeology, December 6, 2012 |/]

“The block was found directly above a surface containing hundreds of artifacts from the early Aurignacian culture, the earliest modern humans in Europe. An imprint of the vulva on the shelter floor, along with a lack of sediment buildup between the block and the surface, suggested that radiocarbon dating of several pieces of bone smashed by the fallen block would give an accurate age of the roof collapse and an approximate age of the engraving. “We see vulva again and again and again,” says New York University archaeologist Randall White about Aurignacian sites in the region near Abri Castanet (See “Letter from France"). “The fact that they’re repeating the same forms suggests that it is conventionalized in a way that allowed these people to relate to the meaning.”“ |/

Michael Balter wrote in “Harold Dibble, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says the team's dating of the vulva engraving appears sound because it cannot be any younger than the surface onto which it fell and might even be older. "The context of the find is quite clear," Dibble says. As for the long-standing tradition among archaeologists working in France of interpreting such images as vulvas, Dibble says, "Who the hell knows" what they really represent? Dibble adds that such interpretations could be colored by the worldview of Western archaeologists whose culture probably differs greatly from that of prehistoric peoples. "Maybe it's telling us more about the people making those interpretations" than the artists who created the images, Dibble says. On the other hand, he says, the repeated use of this image at other sites in the Vezere valley suggests that it was some sort of "shared iconography" that might identify specific groups of people. Indeed, archaeologists have also identified differences in the styles of personal ornaments and other artifacts that might also reflect different groups or tribes, much as people express their group identities by the way they dress today. [Source: Michael Balter,, May. 14, 2012 ^=^]

“Paul Pettit, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, agrees that the new work "provides admirable independent verification of the age of the Castanet rock art that has been suspected for decades." What's more, argues Pettit, a leader of a small but vocal group of archaeologists who have questioned the dating of the Chauvet paintings, the discovery at Abri Castanet helps make their case that the Chauvet art is too sophisticated to be 37,000 years old. "The only other examples of convincingly dated rock art in this period are the painted block from Fumane, which in terms of technical achievement is similar to the Castanet examples," he says. The reason there are so many stylistic differences between the spectacular Chauvet paintings and the relatively simple engravings at Abri Castanet, he insists, is that the Chauvet images are much younger.” ^=^

World's Oldest Figurative Art “Pornographic"?

Chip Walter wrote in National Geographic: “In Hohle Fels, Conard’s team recently uncovered some objects whose messages are so sexually explicit they might require a parental warning. One is a carving of a woman with exaggerated breasts and genitalia, found in 2008. At least 35,000 years old, the Venus of Hohle Fels is the most ancient figure yet discovered that is indisputably human. (Two much earlier figurines from Morocco and what is now Israel may be natural rocks that vaguely resemble the human form.) Earlier the team had found a polished rod of siltstone, about eight inches long and an inch in diameter, with a ring etched at one end—likely a phallic symbol. A few feet away from the Venus figurine, Conard’s team uncovered a flute carved from a hollow griffon vulture bone, and in Geissenklösterle Cave found three other flutes, one made of ivory and two fashioned from a swan’s wing bone. They are the oldest known musical instruments in the world. We don’t know whether these people had drugs. But they clearly had the sex and rock and roll. [Source: Chip Walter, National Geographic, January 2015]

Eliza Strickland wrote in Discover: “A tiny ivory carving of a busty woman may be not only the oldest known example of erotic art–it may be the oldest art depicting any human figure at all. Named the Venus of Hohle Fels after the cave in southwestern Germany where it was recently excavated, the object dates to at least 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, based on more than 30 radiocarbon measurements conducted at the site [Discovery News]. The statue is also “bordering on the pornographic” by our modern standards, one expert says, with its huge, bulbous breasts and oversized genitalia. [Source: Eliza Strickland, Discover, May 13, 2009]/^\

“Germany’s southern caves were presumably inviting sanctuaries, scholars say, for populations of modern humans migrating then into central and western Europe. These were the people who eventually displaced the resident Neanderthals, around 30,000 years ago. Dr. Conard reported that the discovery was made beneath three feet of red-brown sediment in the floor of the Hohle Fels cave. Six fragments of the carved ivory, including all but the left arm and shoulder, were recovered. When he brushed dirt off the torso, he said, “the importance of the discovery became apparent” [The New York Times]. /^\

“The Venus, which is described in a paper in Nature, was carved from a woolly mammoth tusk, and measures just over two inches long. In place of a head the statue has a polished ring, suggesting that the carving may have been hung from a string and worn like a pendant. The newfound object reminds experts of the most famous of the sexually explicit figurines from the Stone Age, the Venus of Willendorf, discovered in Austria a century ago. It was somewhat larger and dated at about 24,000 years ago, but it was in a style that appeared to be prevalent for several thousand years. Scholars speculate that these Venus figurines, as they are known, were associated with fertility beliefs or shamanistic rituals [The New York Times]. /^\

“Or there may be a simpler explanation for why the Venus of Hohle Fels was carved, argues anthropologist Paul Mellars, who wrote a commentary on the find in Nature. “If there’s one conclusion you want to draw from this, it’s that an obsession with sex goes back at least 35,000 years…. But if humans hadn’t been largely obsessed with sex they wouldn’t have survived for the first 2 million years. None of this is at all surprising” [LiveScience], he says. /^\

“Human-made art goes back further in our history; the first abstract, geometric designs date from around 75,000 years ago. But the jump to figurative art is a significant cognitive step, researchers say, and could be tied to the development of language, another symbolic system. Jill Cook, an expert on ancient figurines, says the Venus “shows that people at this time in Europe had reached a stage in development of the brain which enabled objects to be symbolised and abstracted…. You’re dealing with a mind like ours, but simply a different time and environment” [New Scientist]. /^\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Blombos Cave site, homo erectus art University of Amsterdam

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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