In South Africa, Discovering the World’s Oldest Drawing

A recent archaeological discovery highlights strong interest in ancient rock art. The South African Rock Art Digital Archive offers a virtual trove of more than 250,000 images.

02. xam land with rock engraving.jpgInformation about South Africa’s historically-significant rock art paintings have been digitized and are accessible online where they are preserved for future generations. Photo courtesy of Pippa Skotnes.

The discovery of a Stone Age drawing in a South African cave may be the oldest human-made drawing on the planet, exciting researchers and art-lovers alike and highlighting the need to preserve what archaeologists already know about ancient African rock art.

Scientists have uncovered the remains of a drawing rendered some 73,000 years ago with red ochre, a natural pigment made of clay and sand.  That’s about 30,000 years earlier than the European cave drawings that were previously thought to be the oldest, according to archaeologist Chris Henshilwood of the University of Bergen in Norway.  Henshilwood is the lead author of a study about the drawing, which was published in the journal Nature last month, upending what archaeologists have believed about the abilities of early humans to draw and create abstract symbols.

According to a New York Times article, the drawing was uncovered by accident in 2011, when a research fellow working in Blombos Cave—an archaeological site located about 200 miles east of Cape Town in South Africa—spotted a tiny flake of stone containing six red, nearly-parallel lines on the speck of rock that were crosshatched with three slightly curved lines.  

“We knew a lot of things Homo sapiens could do, but we didn’t know they could do drawings back then,” Henshilwood told The Times.

Rock Art 2.pngRARI Master’s student Nkosinathi Tomose, during his Honours looking at the spatial distribution of different traditions of rock art in this area of Limpopo. Photo courtesy of The South African Rock Art Digital Archive (SARADA)

The scientists’ discovery changes the world’s understanding of the history and capabilities of the earliest humans—and also underscores the critical importance of preserving African rock art for further study. Grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supported the digitalization of over 250,000 images, tracings, and historical documents of ancient African rock art collected over the last 150 years, culminating in the South African Rock Art Digital Archive (SARADA). The archive is the first initiative to digitize rock art records in South Africa and is also the first multi-institutional collaboration of its kind in South African archaeology.

“People can now explore rock art from their desk rather than traveling thousands of kilometers to often inaccessible sites,” says Benjamin R. Smith, a professor of world rock art in the archeology department of the University of Western Australia.  Professor Smith led the team that created SARADA.

SARADA is one of many projects featured in a publication celebrating The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s grantmaking in South Africa.  Beginning in 1988, the Mellon Foundation initiated support for three racially “open” South African universities—and went on to engage in grants to bolster higher education and the humanities in South Africa over the next three decades.

SARADA-Homepage.pngScreenshot of the SARADA website homepage. Courtesy of SARADA.

The mission of SARADA was to preserve the vast trove of previously-recorded images of rock art collected by institutions across South Africa, including the Rock Art Research Institute (RARI) at Wits University, Rhodes University, the Iziko Museums of Cape Town, the Natal Museum, the National Museum, University of Cape Town (UCT), University of South Africa, and the private collection of Jeanette Deacon.  SARADA also aims to make images accessible to a much wider swath of students and researchers, and to protect the art from the physical damage that comes from regular in-person visits.  These priceless works of art had been exposed to the elements, vandalism, and even animals through the years, and photos and other historical records of the works will continue to age over time. The resulting efforts from SARADA transformed the photos and records into the world’s largest online digital rock art archive.

Because those tracings and drawings as well as the original rock art will eventually degrade, capturing those images in the archive is crucial for future study.  “All the art is exposed and most of it unprotected,” says Professor Smith.  

Among the more recent rock art discoveries that have been digitally preserved by SARADA are those of Storm Shelter, a site in southern Drakensburg that was discovered in 1993.  Researchers traced the panels of the site and archeologists worked on recreating drawings based on those tracings, according to the book Working with Rock Art: Recording, Presenting and Understanding Rock Art Using Indigenous Knowledge, which was co-edited by Smith. 

DSCN5823.JPGPhoto courtesy of SARADA

Cave art is far more than just the simple etchings of hunter-gatherers. African herders and farmers also made drawings, and the stories they tell are more complex than they might seem at first glance.

Analysis reveals the enormous sophistication of these ancient art traditions, their complex use of metaphor and symbolism, and the integral role of art in ancient African ceremonies and beliefs.

“There are images of humans who look as if they have died, and it is often presumed they were killed in battle,” Smith explains.  Closer study of the images shows that they are actually depicting healing ceremonies “where people would fall to the ground in a trance state and journey through the cosmos.”

“It was a deeply spiritual art.”