Abstract Art from the Middle Stone Age

The oldest piece of abstract art ever found was in a small cave on the South African Cape coast.

About 300 kms east of Cape Town, South Africa lies a well-researched archaeological site called Blombos Cave (BBC) in the Blombos Private Nature Reserve. Named for the prickly white flower (blom) bush (bos) that is found in the area in which it is situated, this eye-shaped cave has yielded significant archaeological information on its stone age inhabitants.

About 30 metres from the sea and 100 meters inland, this archaeological treasure trove was buried behind sand deposited from the surrounding dunes. Excavations of the cave began in 1962, conducted by archaeologist, Professor Christopher Henshilwood as part of his doctoral thesis at Cambridge University: Holocene archaeology of the coastal Garcia State Forest, southern Cape, South Africa.

Since 1962 the cave has been studied intensively by Henshilwood and colleagues from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and various European universities. While initial studies were focussed on the more recent Later Stone Age (LSA) deposits, since 1997 the primary focus has been on the earlier Middle Stone Age (MSA) sequence.

The researchers were the first humans to enter the cave since its last occupants left about 70 000 years ago, and in deposits of ash and sand from hearths from the MSA, Henshilwood and his team found pieces of ochre rock that had been scraped and ground to flatten the surface. Cross hatches and lines had then been carved into the surface probably using ochre rock “crayons” found in the vicinity, to create complex abstract geometric patterns. These pieces have been dated to approximately 75 000 BCE and are the first ever documented examples of abstract, not representative, art. Abstract art is particularly interesting as it does not directly represent any biological or geographical object that the creators might have encountered. It is thus a possible indicator of abstract thinking ability, although the purpose of these rock pieces is yet unknown. There is some speculation in the scientific literature that the engraved rock pieces may have been used as stamps of some sort. Analysis of the grains of soil surrounding the rock pieces by the method known as optically stimulated luminescence indicates that there was no soil blending in the areas in which they were found, confirming that they were indeed from the Middle Stone Age period.

It is interesting to note that at Diepkloof in the Western Cape similar cross hatch geometric patterns have been found on ostrich eggshells dating back to 60 000 BCE, which were probably used to collect and carry water. There is strong evidence from these findings and further discoveries at Klasies River Cave 1 and the caves at Klein Kliphuis and Wonderwerk, that there was an abstract or symbolic art tradition in the South African Cape coastal area that predates anything found in Europe by at least thirty millennia.

The team also found associated shells that had been pierced by tools, with some of the shell beads covered with red ochre. The wear patterns indicate that these decorative objects had been suspended and were thus in all probability strung together and used as jewellery. Again, this is the earliest known example of using external objects for personal decoration and possibly status definition, and predates similar items found in Europe.

A layer dating even further back to 100 000 years ago, yielded a most significant finding − an ochre-rich paint mixture that had been stored in abalone shells. This mixture was possibly used for either or both skin protection and skin decoration.

About 70 000 years ago, Blombos cave was completely deserted. Researchers posit that the inhabitants might have left as a result of climate change. What had been a mild, temperate region became drier and sea water levels dropped dramatically. The residents were in all probability thus forced to find better hunting grounds and this may possibly have triggered the beginning of an exodus into Northern Africa and even Europe. Researchers are now also able to collect data from the rich archaeological deposits to study the possible effects of dramatic climate change on societies and the resulting migration patterns.

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