In a cave overlooking the Indian Ocean, the artist scraped and ground two pieces of ochre, a form of iron ore, to create a smooth surface. Then they were etched with cross hatches and lines to create a distinctive geometric motif.
Modern art? Hardly. A paper published online Thursday by the journal Science reports that the objects are some 77,000 years old, more than 40,000 years older than any abstract art found before anywhere in the world.
A team led by archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood of the State University of New York-Stony Brook and the Ikiki South African Museum in Cape Town found the evidence of modern art - which they feel also represents modern human behavior - in a site called Blombos Cave.
The cave, which they've been excavating for nine years, is particularly important because it pushes back modern human behavior closer to the time when fossil evidence shows anatomically modern humans first arose in Africa, about 130,000 years ago.
Paleoanthropologists until recently had been puzzled that human behavior seemed to lag behind physical development. Artifacts like advanced hunting and fishing gear and tools, and art or other symbolic expression, had been dated back 40,000 years, about the time the first modern humans started creating cave paintings in Spain and France, and African craftsmen created late Stone Age tools.
But at Blombos, Henshilwood and his colleagues have found early evidence of bone tool manufacture and modern fishing technology, as well as the ochre pieces, which were dated based on burnt stone and sand grains found around them.
Scientists around the world disagree on exactly what behavior traits most accurately define differences between human ancestors and Homo Sapiens. "There is agreement on one criteria, though: archaeological evidence of abstract or depictional images indicates modern human behavior," Henshilwood said. "The Blombos Cave engravings are intentional images," he added, but are not outlines of animals or other objects drawn from nature.
Ochre is frequently found in Stone Age sites less than 100,000 years old, and may have been used symbolically as body or decorative paint, or even for skin protection, and for tanning hides. More than 8,000 pieces of the material have been found at Blombos, and many appear to have been used by people living there. Seven other pieces may also have been engraved, but are still under study, the researchers said.
"These finds demonstrate that ochre use in the Middle Stone Age was not exclusively utilitarian. Arguably, the transmission and sharing of the meaning of the engravings relied on fully syntactical language," Henshilwood said.
Other anthropologists are less willing to attach so much importance to just a few artifacts. "I have a little trouble that this is the evidence that displaces all claims for the earliest modern human behavior elsewhere," Meg Conkey, an anthropologist at the University of California-Berkley, told Science.
While it might be symbolic behavior, "it could also be a kind of doodling," added French cave art expert Jean Clottes.
Other experts note that dozens of other Middle Stone Age sites across Africa yielded no similar evidence, making it possible that the Blombos artist was ahead of his or her time rather than a trend-setter.
Henshilwood counters that most of the other digs were done more than 50 years ago, before modern techniques for excavating and dating came into use. But he also joins some other anthropologists in suggesting that people living near the sea might have enjoyed advantages in nutrition and perhaps materials that inland cousins did not.
"Did those anatomically modern people who ended up in a coastal environment do better?" Henshilwood wonders. "This does seem to be the pattern."
The trouble with tracking such ancient coastal settlements is that most of them were probably submerged as glaciers when the last Ice Age melted and pushed sea levels higher over the past tens of thousands of years.
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