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If a picture tells a thousand words, a cross-hatched design drawn on a fragment of rock some 73,000 years ago could speak volumes. The problem will be understanding what it tells us. The design, reported in Nature this week (C. S. Henshilwood et al. Nature https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0514-3; 2018), occurs on a lentil-shaped rock flake, and was found in Blombos Cave, on the southern shore of South Africa, by archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood and his colleagues. The flake bears an abstract design drawn, the authors say, using a crayon made of red ochre.

It is hard to claim that the design is beautiful, dazzling or engrossing. But the artwork is destined to be priceless and famous, because it seems to be the earliest evidence for a drawing in the archaeological record, by some margin. Apart from some cave paintings from Spain dated to around 64,000 years ago — presumably the work of Neanderthals (D. L. Hoffmann et al. Science 359, 912–915; 2018) — the next instance of drawing came around 40,000 years ago with cave paintings found at opposite ends of Eurasia: in the spectacular art decorating the walls of caves in Spain and France, and the more recently discovered cave art in Sulawesi in Indonesia (M. Aubert et al. Nature 514, 223–227; 2014). Despite being located 12,000 kilometres apart, cave paintings such as these contain images that we instantly recognize as figurative art, including a range of animals, and stencils of hands that speak to us, millennia later, as signs of human self-awareness.

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