New South African Find Could Be Oldest Human Art

Posted Jun 13, 2009 by Christopher Szabo
A discovery in a cave in South Africa could point to the origins of modern human behaviour. The new finds show that the first meaningful designs painted or scratched into cave walls could be twice as old as previously thought.
A Typical Example of San  or  Bushman  Art
A Typical Example of San, or 'Bushman' Art
Pieces of decorated red ochre from the Blombos cave, in the Eastern Cape province, could reveal the roots of modern human behaviour, tracing the time frame when hominids developed into modern humans. Professor Christopher Henshilwood of the University of the Witwatersrand and his colleagues will publish these finds in the Journal of Human Evolution, according to a report in Science News.
The Blombos Foundation’s website says the two and three inch (five to seven centimetres) long pieces were first scraped, then ground to create flat surfaces, which were then marked with lines and cross hatches to create a deliberate and complex geometric motif.
The discovery, which is dated to at least 70,000 years ago, would double the period of time in which early humans were thought to have been able to think abstractly, with previous finds in France dated to less than 35,000 years ago. Henshilwood said:
The presence of the engraved object signifies the cognitive abilities and capacity for abstract thought are in line with what we would expect of modern human behaviour. Deliberate depictions, whether abstract or pictorial, signify modern human behaviour. These finds point to Africa as the cradle of both human anatomical modernity and behavioural modernity. The importance is that African people, from whom we are all descended, were modern in their behaviour long before they got to Europe as Cro-Magnons and replaced Neanderthals.
Not all scholars agree with this conclusion. Anthropologist Curtis Marean of Arizona State University warns that the incisions could be the result of using stone tools to slice into the ochre quickly, adding that further studies must be undertaken before drawing conclusions.
The cave has already yielded much early evidence of bone tool making and fishing, both of which are regarded as markers of human, rather than hominid, behaviour.