DRAWN OF HISTORY

Humans were drawing 30,000 years earlier than we thought

More Mondrian than Monet.
More Mondrian than Monet.
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Scientists have found what could be the world’s oldest drawing: a crosshatched pattern that looks like a doodle you might find in a bored student’s notebook. The work, discovered in South Africa’s Blombos Cave, was drawn onto a rock with a piece of ocher.

Researchers believe the design was made about 73,000 years ago, which would make it the oldest known drawing. This is the latest discovery to shake up our understanding of the evolution of human creativity. It’s widely accepted that early humans made figurative art—that is, drawings of real objects like people or animals—around 40,000 years ago, around the same time as a major migration from Africa to Europe, where many of these early figurative drawings have been found. As a result, many scientists believed this migration was what led to a renaissance in creative thought. But this abstract doodle suggests that our ancestors in Africa had the capacity for symbolic art more than 30,000 years before any migration.

Discoveries of these older, abstract drawings are controversial among archaeologists. Some are skeptical of dating methods; others are unconvinced that the drawings truly represent symbolic thinking. Did these early humans set out to draw, or are the designs some sort of aesthetically pleasing accident?

To get ahead of that question, researchers set out to show that the crosshatched pattern was intentionally drawn. They mimicked the drawing using various techniques and ocher fragments. After comparing those manufactured drawings to the original, they concluded what they’d found in South Africa was the real deal.

Our ancestors, it appears, were drawn to drawing far earlier than we realized.