Human ‘Hashtag’ Found in South African Cave Challenges Understanding of Human Ancestry

Scientists working in Blombos Cave in South Africa’s southern Cape region have made a discovery contributing to the understanding of when human ancestors started expressing themselves through drawings. 

A tiny fragment of rock marked with intersecting lines of red ochre pigment some 73,000 years ago has been unearthed by the scientists. The abstract design, which has a vague resemblance to a popular internet symbol—the hashtag, was found in Blombos Cave on the southern coast of South Africa, according to The Conversation Africa. Blombos Cave is situated 50m from the Indian Ocean, elevated at 35m above sea level and 300km east of Cape Town.

The discovery is the oldest-known example of drawing by humans, the scientists said. It predates the previous oldest-known drawings by at least 30,000 years and was drawn by hunter-gatherers who periodically dwelled in the cave overlooking the Indian Ocean.

“The abrupt termination of all lines on the fragment edges indicates that the pattern originally extended over a larger surface. The pattern was probably more complex and structured in its entirety than in this truncated form,” said archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergen in Norway and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, who led the research published in the journal Nature.

“We would be hesitant to call it art. It is definitely an abstract design and it almost certainly had some meaning to the maker and probably formed a part of the common symbolic system understood by other people in this group,” Henshilwood added while speaking to The Conversation Africa.

There have been several other artifacts found in Blombos Cave, including ochre pieces engraved with abstract patterns resembling the one drawn on the stone as well as ocher-covered shell beads.

The drawing found on silcrete stone in Blombos Cave. Photo: Craig Foster/The Conversation Africa

Other items including shell beads covered with ochre, and pieces of ochres engraved with abstract patterns were also found in the archaeological layer in which the Blombos drawing was discovered. 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. The discoveries add to the existing understanding of Homo sapiens in Africa. The earliest known engraving, a zig-zag pattern incised on a fresh water shell from Trinil, Java, was found in layers dated to 540,000 years ago, but in terms of drawings, a recent article proposed that painted representations in three caves of the Iberian Peninsula were 64,000 years old.

“This reinforces the idea that drawing was something that existed in the minds of the hunter-gatherers,” Francesco d’Errico, a director of the National Centre for Scientific Research at the University of Bordeaux, told AFP. While drawings such as the one unearthed in South Africa undoubtedly had a “symbolic meaning” d’Errico said early humans “probably didn’t consider them as art.”