If you’ve been fol­low­ing archae­o­log­i­cal news, you’ll know that a dis­cov­ery in Blom­bos Cave in the West­ern Cape has made inter­na­tion­al news. 

The cave has been a source of fas­ci­na­tion for researchers since the ear­ly 1990s, yield­ing ancient arte­facts includ­ing engraved ochre, engraved bone and marine shell beads that have shed light on ear­ly human behaviour.

In a dis­cov­ery pub­lished in the sci­ence jour­nal, Nature, ear­li­er this month, researchers have report­ed find­ing a cross-hatched pat­tern drawn with an ochre cray­on on a ground sil­crete flake recov­ered from approx­i­mate­ly 73,000-year-old Mid­dle Stone Age levels”.

The find­ing is significant. 

The dis­cov­ery demon­strates that draw­ing was part of the behav­iour­al reper­toire of pop­u­la­tions of ear­ly Homo sapi­ens in South­ern Africa at about 73 ka,” the paper notes. Ka rep­re­sents kilo­an­ni”, or one thou­sand years. 

Speak­ing to His​to​ry​.com, lead author Pro­fes­sor Christo­pher Hen­shilwood says the draw­ing adds anoth­er dimen­sion to pre­vi­ous find­ings from the cave. 

These signs were most like­ly sym­bol­ic, which helps round out the argu­ment that these Homo sapi­ens were behav­ioural­ly mod­ern. They behaved essen­tial­ly like us before 70 ka (kilo­an­ni, or one thou­sand years) [ago], and before they left Africa for Eurasia.”

There is some debate about whether this dis­cov­ery sup­ports the inter­pre­ta­tion that mod­ern behav­iour first emerged on the African con­ti­nent, as this piece about the dis­cov­ery notes in Nation­al Geo­graph­ic.

But if it is in fact the ear­li­est exam­ple of this kind of behav­iour, it lends cre­dence to Blom­bos Cave being includ­ed on the new Archae­o­log­i­cal and Palaeon­to­log­i­cal Her­itage Tourism Route in the West­ern Cape. The route, which has been dubbed the Cra­dle of Human Cul­ture”, includes the Diep­kloof Rock Shel­ter, Blom­bos Cave and Pin­na­cle Point Site Com­plex.

Out of inter­est, researchers have not­ed that the draw­ing vague­ly resem­bles a hash­tag, sug­gest­ing that such sym­bols have been with us longer than we imagined.

This con­cept of the ori­gins of sym­bol­ism will be the sub­ject of an excit­ing new exhi­bi­tion at Maropeng that takes a clos­er look at the work being done to unearth archae­o­log­i­cal trea­sures in Blom­bos and Diepkloof.

Watch this space for details!