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UiB archaeologists find the world’s oldest drawing

Archeologist from UiB discovered the earliest known drawing in a cave in South Africa. The abstract drawing displays a red cross-hatched line pattern, created with an ochre crayon 73 000 years ago.

“The drawing adds a completely new dimension to our ability to understand when early humans became like us. The drawing demonstrates that early Homo sapiens in southern Africa had the skills to make graphic designs in various media using different techniques at least 30 000 years earlier than first anticipated”,  says Christopher Henshilwood, Professor at UiB, and Director of the Centre of Excellence at the University of Bergen, Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour (SapienCE). The discovery is now published in Nature.

The world's oldest drawing is 73 000 year old and made on a silcrete stone flake.

THE WORLD'S OLDEST DRAWING: The world's oldest drawing is 73 000 year old and made on a silcrete stone flake displaying a red cross-hatched pattern.

Discovered by chance

The drawing was excavated from Blombos Cave, when Christopher Henshilwood and Karen van Niekerk, Principal Investigator at the SapienCE, were excavating the 73 000 year old layer in the cave.

A dusty batch of stone flakes was shipped to the Wits University satellite laboratory in Cape Town to be rinsed and examined. And from here - we can only imagine the scene when their close colleague and archaeologist Dr Luca Pollarolo noticed  a pattern made of lines on a  small silcrete flake amidst the hundrerds of similar flakes he was examining.

“The discovery was obviously very exciting for all of us! You can say – it was one of those unexpected days, which any archaeologist lives for”, Henshilwood and van Niekerk say with a smile.

The silcrete flake was designated number L13.  Even though they were quite certain of what they had – a drawing – they needed to strategise the best methodology that could prove it was a drawing

Excavating Blombos Cave finding world's oldest drawing

EXCAVATING:Christopher Henshilwood and Karen van Niekerk were excavating the 73 000 year old layer in the cave when they found the world's oldest drawing.

The research journey

Many questions needed answers. Were the lines on the stone natural, a part of the matrix of the rock, or were they, perhaps, made by humans living in Blombos Cave 73 000  years ago? 

“Our first step was to take the silcrete stone flake to our colleague Francesco d’Errico at the CNRS‐PACEA lab of the University of Bordeaux in France, also part of the SapienCE team at the University of Bergen. Together we agreed on a systematic approach to answering the questions that the small, but interesting L13 had challenged us with”.

An important part of the investigation was to carefully examine and photograph the piece under a microscope to establish whether the lines were already part of the stone, or if it had been applied to the stone intentionally. They also used sophisticated instruments to establish that the lines are ochre.

Years of inquiries led to the conclusion that the cross-hatched drawing had been made with a pointed ochre crayon with a tip around 1–3 millimetres in width. Further, the abrupt termination of the lines at the edge of the flake also suggests that the pattern originally extended over a larger surface, and may have been more complex in its entirety.

The analysis also confirms that the lines were indeed applied to the flake, and consisted of a haematite rich powder, commonly referred to as ochre, 73 000 years ago, and makes the drawing on the Blombos silcrete flake the oldest drawing know drawing made by Homo sapiens.  

Labwork to examine the world's old drawing found in Blombos Cave

THE RESEARCH JOURNEY: Christopher Henshilwood and Karen van Niekerk embarked on an exiting journey to prove that the silcrete stone flake was displaying a drawing. Top left: Chrisopher Henshilwood and Francesco d'Errico. Top Right: Laure Dayet. Below from left: Karen van Niekerk, Luca Pallardo og Alain Queffelec.

Early symbolic behavior

What can this drawing tell us about our human history?

“Before this discovery, Palaeolithic archaeologists had for a long time been convinced that unambiguous symbols first appeared when Homo sapiens entered Europe, 40 000 years ago, and replaced local Neanderthals.

Recent archaeological discoveries in Africa, Europe and Asia, in which members of our team have often participated, support a much earlier emergence for the production and use of symbols.

According to Henshilwood the abstract drawing, found in Blombos Cave, is yet more proof that symbolic behavior started in Africa and not in Europe as first anticipated. 

Symbol movie 1


Symbols makes us human

Why is symbolic behavior so important when we talk about understanding early human behavior?

“Symbols are an inherent part of our humanity. We express symbols every day. They can be inscribed on our bodies in the form of tattoos and scarifications or cover them through the application of particular clothing, ornaments and the way we dress our hair. We use symbols every day and they exist in everything we do.  Language, writing, mathematics, religion, laws could not possibly exist without the typically human capacity to master the creation and transmission of symbols and our ability to embody them in material culture”.

“Substantial progress has been made in understanding how our brain perceives and processes different categories of symbols, but our knowledge on how and when symbols permanently permeated the culture of our ancestors is still imprecise and speculative”, d’Errico  says.

The drawing fits the bigger picture

The archaeological layer in which the Blombos drawing was discovered also yielded other indicators of symbolic thinking, such as shell beads covered with ochre, and, more importantly, pieces of ochres engraved with abstract patterns. Some of these engravings closely resemble the one drawn on the silcrete flake. In older layers at Blombos Cave, dated at 100 000  years, they also discovered a complete toolkit consisting of two abalone shells filled with an ochre rich substance, a red paint, and all the artefacts associated with making it including seal bone used to add fat to the mixture. This discovery proves that our early ancestors could also make paint by 100 000 years.

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

Engraved stone from Blombos

EARLY ENGRAVINGS: Crosshatched patterns engraved into pieces of ochre have also been found in the same layers as #L13 in Blombos Cave.

Blombos Cave