The global society in which we live in today is just a ceiling tile on the top floor of the towering skyscraper that is human history. It stretches back two hundred thousand years, from the point in the fossil record when humans with modern-looking anatomy begin to appear. It can be hard to grasp this fact when we look back from an entirely Westernised perspective. By dating the Gregorian calendar from the erroneous birth date of Christ, we have created an arbitrary separation between ourselves and the civilizations that built the Great Pyramids, Stonehenge, and the Göbekli Tepe.
The Italian-American scientist and pioneer of Ice Age studies Cesare Emiliani proposed changing our calendar to help change our perspective. The Holocene Era adds ten thousand years to the calendar to encompass the Neolithic Revolution; the age when humanity transitioned from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agrarian communities.
However, evidence from around the world argues that the idea of “modernity” is far, far older than even that date. It’s though the art our ancestors left behind as their legacy that we can truly sense our shared history. The stories they told in their paintings and carvings tell fragments of a silent story almost entirely lost to us.
Fragments of shell jewellery discovered at Skhul Cave in Israel and also at Oued Djebbana in Algeria, around 100,000 years old in both locations, are claimed to show our ancestors developing the ability to think conceptually.
In the following nights I’d like to talk a little about some other examples of artistic relics that have survived from all around the world to show how humans expressed themselves in the thousands of years before we finished off the last mammoth for supper.
The Diepkloof Eggshells
In rock shelters in the Western Cape of South Africa, stones, bones and ostrich eggshells have been found decorated with engravings. Two of these received the most attention for the design of the intricate geometric patterns left on them, and have been dated to be 77,000 thousand years old.
At the Diepkloof Rock Shelter, humans saved the shells of the ostrich eggs they ate, and used them to convey abstract imagery. Since 1998 excavations at Diepkloof have uncovered hundreds of engraved eggshell pieces decorated with converging, intersecting and cross-hatched lines.
Image: Pierre-Jean Texier
After the inevitable damage that comes with eighty thousand years of trampling, burning, and salt erosion, the surviving fragments are small, though archaeologists have been able to piece some of them together to show how these eggshells were reused as containers, and decorated by their users, possibly with more complex abstract designs.
“The motif is two parallel lines, which we suppose were circular, but we do not have a complete refit of the eggs,” explained Dr Pierre-Jean Texier from the University of Bordeaux, Talence, France. “The lines are crossed at right angles or oblique angles by hatching. By the repetition of this motif, early humans were trying to communicate something. Perhaps they were trying to express the identity of the individual or the group,” he told BBC News.
Stanley Ambrose, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois, thinks they are symbolic. “The diversity of design motifs is impressive. It is an important new addition to the corpus of evidence for the development of modern human symbolic and artistic expression in Africa.”
This interpretation isn’t universal, however. The engravings could have been done for aesthetic purposes unrelated to symbolism, says Thomas Wynn, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado.
Have a great night, everyone, and join me tomorrow night for another look at some prehistoric art!