Blombos Cave and beyond: Earliest decorations by Homo sapiens

Homo sapiens are thought to first appear in Africa (with the earliest known evidence being 300,000 years old) and then spread around the world. Similarly to Neanderthals (see corresponding text), Homo sapiens made engravings, wore shell beads and, beyond that, painted geometric ornaments. Blombos Cave in South Africa is unique in a sense that it contains examples of all the above objects. Below, we discuss decorations of Homo sapiens found in Blombos Cave and beyond.

Ochre-processing workshop

We start with quite exceptional objects: not being decorations themselves, they are a direct evidence of a complex symbolic behavior of our ancestors. During excavations at Blombos Cave in 2008, Christopher Henshilwood and his team discovered two very well-preserved ochre-processing toolkits dated ca. 100,000 BP (img. 1.1). The first toolkit consisted of a Haliotis midae shell used as a mixing bowl, quartzite cobble used as a percussor and grinder, quartzite slab used as a board for rubbing ochre, pieces of ochre and bones used as ingredients, and other tools (img. 1.2). The two toolkits were located 16 cm from each other and both contained pigment made using the same complex recipe, which included ochre, burnt and crushed bones, charcoal, quartz and quartzite.

1.1. Two ochre-processing toolkits from Blombos Cave, ca. 100,000 BP (Henshilwood et al. 2011)

“The two Haliotis shells derive from the infratidal zone, at that time a few hundred meters from the cave… The ochre and silcrete were sourced from at least several kilometers away… The close proximity of the two toolkits suggests that they were used contemporaneously. Because both toolkits were left in situ…, it seems that the site was used primarily as a workshop and was abandoned shortly after the compounds were made.” (Henshilwood et al. 2011)

1.2. Content of the first toolkit (Henshilwood et al. 2011)

The above discovery is of great importance for both the history of humankind and the history of art. It shows that already 100,000 years ago people were able to organize an ochre processing workshop, import necessary tools and ingredients, come up with an elaborate recipe and work together to produce pigment.

“The application or use of the compound is not self-evident… Possible uses could include painting a surface in order to decorate or protect it, or to create a design.” (Henshilwood et al. 2011)

Engravings

Engravings attributed to Neanderthals and Denisovans look like a bunch of semi-random scratches. Engravings made by Homo sapiens, instead, show clear geometric patterns, some of which are appealing enough to evoke emotions. For example, joy can be evoked by a balanced, almost symmetrical composition with concentric arches in img. 2.4; enigmatic shapes in imgs. 2.1–2.3, 2.5 may evoke interest in what those shapes might mean.

2.1. Engraved ochres with cross-hatched design patterns, Blombos Cave, first two — ca. 70,000 BP, last — ca. 100,000 BP (Henshilwood et al. 2009)
2.2. Engraved ochres with dendritic design patterns, Blombos Cave, ca. 100,000 BP (Henshilwood et al. 2009)

Engravings by Homo sapiens have been mainly recovered in Africa (for an overview, see Majkić et al. 2018, the most recent publication on the topic is Prévost et al. 2021). In Blombos Cave, engravings were mostly made on ochre pieces, but a few engraved bones were also discovered. These engravings, dated between 100,000 and 70,000 BP, contain a number of (more or less) recurring patterns: cross-hatching (img. 2.1), dendritic shapes (img. 2.2), parallel lines, etc.

“We demonstrate, for the first time, the presence of a tradition in the production of geometric engraved representations in the MSA [Middle Stone Age]; second, that this tradition has roots that go back in time to at least 100 ka ago, and third, that the tradition includes the production of a number of different patterns.” (Henshilwood et al. 2009)

2.3. Engraved bone from Quneitra, Golan Heights, 56,000–51,000 BP (Shaham et al. 2019)
2.4. Engraved flint cortex from Quneitra, Golan Heights, 56,000–51,000 BP (Shaham et al. 2019)

A few engravings by Homo sapiens were also discovered in Levant. Among the recently studied and published engravings, one stands out visually: it is a pattern observed on two finds, a bone fragment and a flint cortex, from Quneitra, Golan Heights, 56,000–51,000 BP (imgs. 2.3–2.4).

“The central motif of both compositions is a symmetrical concentric arcs motif based on the angled straight edge of the object… While both artworks have a balanced composition, that on the stone plaque seems more preplanned and strict because there are fewer lines, the lines (in general) are more spaced, the lines are more precisely done, and the lines are more constant.” (Shaham et al. 2019)

An extraordinary, one of a kind assemblage of 270 engraved ostrich eggshell fragments, dated ca. 60,000 BP, was discovered at Diepkloof Rock Shelter in South Africa (img. 2.5). Despite the large number of fragments, there are only

“four repetitive linear motifs in the form of a hatched band motif, a parallel to subparallel line motif, an intersecting line motif, and a crosshatching motif… It is likely that most of the engraved fragments of ostrich eggshell discovered at Diepkloof represent intentionally marked ostrich eggshell containers… that probably were used to store liquids such as water. These objects were used daily, were curated, and were elements of a collective and complex social life. For these reasons, ostrich eggshell provided an ideal surface for informative marking, such as self or group identification.” (Texier et al. 2010)

2.5. Engraved ostrich eggshell fragments from Diepkloof Rock Shelter, South Africa, ca. 60,000 BP (Texier et al. 2010)

Marine shell beads

Similarly to Neanderthals, Homo sapiens not only made engravings but also wore beads made of naturally or artificially perforated marine shells. Excavated shells are identified as beads if they have traces of use-ware, which suggest that the shells were worn on strings: sometimes as a single item, sometimes as a part of a bracelet or necklace.

3.1. Nassarius kraussianus shell beads from Blombos Cave, ca. 75,000 BP (Vanhaeren et al. 2013); 3.2. Nassarius gibbosulus shell beads from Grotte des Pigeons, Morocco, ca. 82,000 BP (Bouzouggar et al. 2007)

Blombos Cave yelded 68 artificially perforated Nassarius kraussianus shells with traces of use-ware and some with traces of ochre, dated ca. 75,000 BP (img. 3.1). Some of the shells we discovered in groups, which

“led us to propose that each group was originally part of a single beadwork item, lost or disposed of during a single event.” (Vanhaeren et al. 2013)

3.3. Glycymeris insubrica shell beads from Qafzeh Cave, Israel, ca. 92,000 BP or 120,000 BP (Mayer et al. 2020)

Even earlier use of marine shells as beads was determined in Grotte des Pigeons in Morocco, where a number of naturally perforated Nassarius gibbosulus shells with wear patterns and ochre traces were found, dated ca. 82,000 BP (img. 3.2). Outside of Africa, Glycymeris insubrica shells with natural perforation but artificial use-ware were discovered in Qafzeh Cave in Israel, dated either ca. 92,000 BP or even as early as 120,000 BP (img. 3.3). Marine shell beads were also found in other parts of Africa and Asia (for an overview, see Steele et al. 2019).

Drawing

We finish the discussion of early decorations by Homo sapiens with the oldest known drawing in the world, which was discovered in Blombos Cave (imgs. 4.1–4.2). It is dated ca. 73,000 BP and is almost 30,000 years older than any other known drawing. The drawing is a cross-hatched design supposedly made with a pointed ochre crayon on a silcrete flake and is considered to be a part of a larger design.

4.1. Red ochre drawing on a silcrete flake, Blombos Cave, ca. 73,000 BP (Henshilwood et al. 2018)
4.2. Tracing of the drawing (Henshilwood et al. 2018)

“The discovery of L13 [the drawing discussed here] demonstrates that drawing was part of the behavioural repertoire of populations of early Homo sapiens in southern Africa at about 73 ka. It demonstrates their ability to apply similar graphic designs on various media using different techniques. The discovery of abstract engravings on ochre [see above]… and the production of an ochre-rich paint stored in abalone shells [also see above] suggest that drawings and possibly paintings may have been produced in older MSA levels, perhaps since 100 ka.” (Henshilwood et al. 2018)

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