The Earliest Symbolic Scratchings

05 March 2010
Posted by Chris Smith.

This week archaeologists have described the discovery of some of the earliest evidence for advanced human thought. Publishing in the journal PNAS, Pierre-Jean Texier and colleagues have analysed nearly 300 bits of carved ostrich shell from a site in South Africa.

These shell fragments are thought to be about 65,000 years old and were found at the site of Diepkloof rock shelter where there are layers and layers of Middle Stone Age archaeology. These eggshell fragments have a fairly common motif on them which involves the scoring of two parallel lines and some cross-hatching linking them. So they Male and Female Ostriches at Cape Pointlook a bit like a simplified picket fence drawing.

Doesn't sound like a very hard graphic to achieve - could it just be someone doodling? Well the authors of the study think not because the design was prevalent on so many pieces. Also when they tried to copy the design by using knapped flints and a new ostrich egg they found it was really tough to score any sorts of lines on the surface. So this work does seem to be very intentional.

It's not the first evidence of artwork per se as there have been shell bead discoveries, also from Africa of about 75,000 years old and some more examples farther away this time, in Isreal, which date back 90,000 years. But these ostrich shells are one of the earliest examples of graphic design.

It's important because it demonstrates what's known as symbolic thought; the idea that some kind of decoration or image can carry a meaning that is understood by other members of your society. So for example, if you have decoration on your ostrich egg water vessel - it might imply you belong to a particular group of people, maybe you're making yourself more attractive by doing it, maybe it was something only the adults or only the women did. We may never know what these graphics mean but they do point to some sort of advance in human thought about 65,000 years ago.

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