British archaeologists have found evidence suggesting humans were producing art 350,000 to 400,000 years ago.
It is the earliest indication of humanity's artistic nature and suggests the activity was linked with evolution that turned pre-anatomically modern humans into Homo sapiens.
The discovery was made by University of Bristol academics in the heart of the southern African region normally associated with the birth of Homo sapiens.
The evidence suggests the area's Stone Age inhabitants were producing painted art before they evolved into our species.
The discovery of pigment and paint-grinding equipment in a cave at Twin Rivers, 35km from Lusaka, Zambia, and an analysis of the mineral sources of the pigments, shows that these early artists obtained their yellow, light red and brown pigment from 2km away, pink pigment from 3km away and dark red and purple pigment from 5km away.
It is probable they used it for painting their bodies during hunting rituals, initiation ceremonies and other social events.
So far 307 fragments of pigment have been found in the cave: 40 per cent are dark red, 20 per cent sparkling purple, 20 per cent light red, 10 per cent brown, 4 per cent pink, 4 per cent yellow, and 2 per cent black. It is the first indication of the nature of early humanity's aesthetic sense.
The next oldest generally accepted pigments also come from southern Africa and date back 120,000 years, while the oldest generally accepted pre-historic art works, sculptures and paintings, date from 35,000 years ago and are from Europe.
The discoveries, which were made by a team led by Lawrence Barham of Bristol University, are of particular importance because they date from when pre-anatomically modern humanity was about to evolve into anatomically modern humanity, Homo sapiens.
The artistic revolution implied by the find was taking place at the same time as a revolution in which humans were developing much more efficient hunting equipment, including composite tools which used wooden hafts to increase the effectiveness of stone implements and weapons.
New technology, art and ritual made possible the transformation to anatomically modern humanity. The requirement for these technological and behavioural "tools" seems to have been driven by a cold, dry period some 340,000 years ago that led to expansionof the Kalahari Desert, which in turn broke up the forest land of southern Africa, causing big habitat changes and adaptive challenges for early human populations.
Dr Barham said: "If the pigments were being used for body painting, as indeed seems likely, it would imply that ritual behaviour was evolving at a very early period. These findings suggest that the roots of modern behaviour emerged in Africa much earlier than we thought."Reuse content