South African cave reveals the world's oldest works of art

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The Independent Online

Archaeologists have unearthed the oldest works of art in the world – two slivers of rock on which Stone Age artists etched symbolic patterns about 77,000 years ago.

The rock art, found in a cave in South Africa, is twice as old as Stone Age cave paintings in southern France and demonstrates that humans living at this time possessed "modern" patterns of thought.

Scientists believe that the cross-hatched engravings were carefully etched on to the red ochre stones, which are a form of pigmented iron ore that had been prepared by rubbing to create a smooth surface. Stone Age societies used red ochre symbolically as a body paint, and possibly also for skin protection and for tanning hides, but this is the first known example of the ochre being used to depict art.

Christopher Henshilwood, professor of archaeology at Bergen University in Norway, led the team that made the discovery at the Blombos cave, 180 miles east of Cape Town. He believes the stones show a representation of conventions to express mutually understood concepts. "They may have been constructed with symbolic intent, the meaning of which is now unknown," Professor Henshilwood said.

"These finds demonstrate that ochre used in the middle Stone Age was not exclusively utilitarian and, arguably, the transmission and sharing of the meaning of the engravings relied on syntactical language."

"To try to explain what the representations stand for is unfortunately beyond our capacity at the moment. But do they indicate a modern brain? I think the answer is yes.

"The surface of the ochre has been very carefully prepared," the professor added. "This is almost certainly not a doodle. They are symbolic."

The 2in-long rocks were excavated in 1999 and 2000 but their existence is only now being published in the journal Science, after two independent dating studies. "This shows the people in southern Africa were behaviourally modern 70,000 years ago," Professor Henshilwood added.