Ancient history

The oldest known design

Archaeologists found a flat sliver of silcrete , a mineral that forms when sand and gravel are cemented.
The small chip is covered with scratch-like marks made with ocher.

The team found the artifact in a rich deposit of artifacts, evidence of the presence of the first Homo sapiens in the cave of Blombos , over 200km from Cape Town in South Africa. Set on the side of a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean, the cave seems to have been used by small groups of human beings as a resting place before leaving for food gathering or hunting expeditions.

About 70 thousand years ago the cave closed, sealing the artifacts and putting them away. Over the years, access to the cave has opened and closed several times depending on the rise in sea level or the movement of the dunes.

"It was perfectly preserved," says the study's author, Christopher Henshilwood , an archaeologist who heads the Center for Early Sapiens Behavior of the University of Bergen .
Henshilwood , which in the past has benefited from funds from National Geographic , has conducted excavations since the 1990s.

Inside the cave, scientists found other evidence of the "artisanal" skills of Homo sapiens , dating back to a hundred thousand years ago. The discoveries made so far concern perforated shells, which archaeologists believe were used as beads, tools and spearheads, parts of bones and ocher and some artifacts that seem to demonstrate the ability to produce a liquid pigment from ocher.

The finding shows "that drawing was part of the behavioral repertoire" of primitives, the researchers write. If people made paintings, beaded necklaces, and carved bone marks, then they were behaviorally modern as early as 70,000 years ago, if not earlier, says Henshilwood .

"It's the fourth leg of the table," he says. The same type of evidence has been used to prove the development of modern humans in Europe, he points out.

"The latter is precisely dated," replies Margaret Conkey , archaeologist and emeritus professor at University of California , Berkeley , which has been involved in rock art for a long time.

Conkey then recalls how negative the dispute between those who believe Africa is, and those who believe it is Europe, the cradle at the birth of modern human behavior, is negative for science. "No center is good, because human evolution and behavior are complicated", she says:"There is no single origin".