Around 73,000 years ago, in a cave now known as Blombos, someone took a pointed lump of iron-rich rock—ochre—and dragged its tip across another rock, leaving behind a pattern of red, crosshatched strokes. The identity of the marks’ creator is unknown. Their intentions are unclear. But the red marks still persist on a 1.5-inch-long piece of stone, discovered by a team of researchers led by Christopher Henshilwood from the University of Bergen. If Henshilwood’s interpretation of the marks’ origins is correct, they make up the oldest abstract drawing ever found, predating the previous record holders by at least 30,000 years.
“It doesn’t make the … people of Blombos Cave artists, but it suggests that they started being interested by graphical designs,” says Chantal Tribolo from Bordeaux Montaigne University, who studies symbolic behaviors in early humans and was not involved in the new find. “What they exactly wanted to do or express with these sketches remains to be discovered.”
For a long time, the oldest known drawings and paintings were found on the walls of caves in France and Spain, and were between 30,000 and 40,000 years old. Their antiquity fit with a prominent Eurocentric narrative in which humans migrated out of Africa, and only then went through a “creative explosion” that led to symbolic thought, advanced culture, and modern behavior. But this story has now been thoroughly dismantled by a string of discoveries, including those that Henshilwood and his long-time colleagues Francesco d’Errico and Karen van Niekerk have made in Blombos.