December 01, 2020

#08-017: Ancient Art or Early Doodle?

This is claimed to be the "the earliest known drawing in history"--73,000 years old!

Note: Not so long ago, if you had asked experts in paleoanthropology about the oldest prehistoric art, they might have pointed to cave sites in Spain and France, or to others in Indonesia, dating to 35,000 to 45,000 years ago. But in recent decades, discoveries of ancient art have pushed back the timeline of our ancestors' creative impulse by tens of thousands of years.

Get Ready: What is the oldest human-made thing (a building, some art, a piece of furniture) you have ever seen? Are you interested in ancient things made by human hands?

In 1991, archaeologists began excavating Blombos Cave in South Africa, and 20 years later they found a small rock fragment, around one and a half inches long. It was lying among spear points and other materials, and bore nine red lines made by human hands using a sort of "crayon" made of red ochre, a combination of ferric oxide (a kind of "rust") and clay. It dated back to 73,000 years BP (before the Present).

The cross-hatched lines extend to the edge of the fragment, which is broken off, leading scholars to believe that the drawing once extended over a larger area. The drawing is abstract--that is, it does not represent prey animals or any aspect of ancient living--leading to the surmise that it was a purely creative, not practical, exercise. This would be a very "modern" activity for an ancient person to pursue! The team that is studying it calls it "the earliest known drawing in history," pushing back the horizon of human creativity by 30,000 years.

The cave yielded other "artsy" finds as well: seashells that may have been used as beads; bones with designs scratched into their surfaces; and materials that seem to have been used for producing a kind of "paint kit."

Sometime after the artwork was created, perhaps around 70,000 BP, the cave, which once overlooked the Indian Ocean, closed up, sealing the artifacts inside.

Some scholars dispute the importance of the find, saying it isn't art at all; the definition of what constitutes "art," even in our time, is slippery. It is, some propose, merely a "doodle." But even the doubters, like archaeologist Margaret Conkey, admit "this is exciting stuff. It adds to the complexity of the material record from early Homo sapiens in South Africa."


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Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. abstract
  2. cross-hatched
  3. doodle
  4. fragment
  5. horizon
  6. impulse
  7. paleoanthropology
  8. slippery
  9. surmise
  10. yielded

  1. broken piece of something
  2. study of ancient human beings
  3. limit; edge
  4. not representing anything in the real world
  5. drawing made idly, with no specific intention
  6. offered; gave up
  7. urge to do something; impetus
  8. not easily grasped
  9. decorated with crossing lines, like a hashtag
  10. guess; conjecture

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for December 1, 2020

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. d; 2. i; 3. e; 4. a; 5. c; 6. g; 7. b; 8. h; 9. j; 10. f