Blombos Cave

Posted by Maranda Powers on

I have a hard time wrapping my head around geological time scales. Most people do. Our comparatively short lifespans prevent us from truly comprehending the age of the earth, the age of life on earth, or even the age of our own species.*

Last year, I got curious about how old the oldest drawing ever found is.** OK, wow. Mind is blown, and now I have one more astonishing date that I am struggling to grasp - 73,000 years.

A drawing, made by anatomically modern humans, 73,000 years ago. Roughly 2,608 generations have lived and died since then.

Image by Bradshaw Foundation

This little flake of rock with red ochre lines is the oldest drawing yet discovered. It was found where we often find rad stuff like this; in a cave in Africa.

Blombos cave is on the southern coast of South Africa and it is very important, interesting and cool. Excavations have been happening there since the 1990s and lots of important, interesting, and cool things have been found. Humans occupied the cave from 101,000 to 70,000*** years ago and beads, tools, engraved bones, and (most pertinent to this post) engraved ochre has been discovered there.

Ochre is a natural occurring mineral that can be a variety of shades. Red ochre has a lot of hematite in it which gives it a warm rusty color. It may have had many uses in this time period, the middle stone age. It can be a colorant, a sunscreen, an adhesive, an insect repellent, or used in the leather tanning process. But in Blombos cave, about 73,000 years ago, someone drew on it, and drew with it.

A small piece of red ochre with cross hatched lines carved into it, found slightly below the rock flake drawing. Image by TimesLive

In 2002 and again in 2018, researchers released their findings on several pieces of engraved ochre and a stone flake with an ochre drawing, definitively made by humans.**** These discoveries pushed back the date of this modern human behavior by 30,000 years. It's a big deal.

We don't know what it means, or why they did it. But we know that they definitely did it. WE did it. We, as a species, have been drawing for over 7 millennia. As an artist and a person with the creative urge, that gives me a lot of feelings. Someone had the creative urge 73,000 years ago. That comforts me, grounds me, and boggles my big ol' homo sapien brain all at the same time.

So naturally I needed to make one.

The layers of stratigraphy in Blombos cave with drawing of the engraved ochres. Image by

Once upon a time, someone ground a piece of ochre flat on one side and used a tool to carve a series of lines into it. 73,000 years later, I ground a piece of wax flat on one side, and used a tool to repeat that same pattern of lines.

I don't know what that original person intended to do with their ochre drawing, but my wax drawing was cast into metal and made into jewelry so that I can wear it and look at it and think about time, and humanity, and creativity, and this urge we have to make and record and communicate.

It makes me feel connected and fills me with wonder.

If you're also into that sort of thing, you can find my version here.


Happy wondering,

:) Maranda


I am not a scientist or an expert on any of the topics I cover on this blog, I am just an enthusiastic rock and fossil fan trying to spread the love. I encourage you to do your own reading and research on any topics that might strike your fancy. If you are an expert and would like to gently correct me, please do! You can reach me via email at maranda @ You can also reach out to tell me how I totally nailed it, or just to say hi, or to show me some cool rock you found.

 *The earth is about 4.5 billion years old, life began around 3.8 billion years ago, and 300 thousand years ago our species made an appearance.

 **I think it was after I watched The Cave of Bones on Netflix. Some of the claims made in it are a bit contentious, but it's still a pretty amazing documentary and worth a watch.

***Around 70,000 years ago, the entrance to the cave became blocked by sand and remained blocked until about 2,000 years ago, when evidence of human occupation appears again. The two periods of human activity are separated in the cave by a layer of dune sand.

**** My info for this post came from those two papers:

An abstract drawing from the 73,000-year-old levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa by Christopher S. Henshilwood, et al. in Nature, October 4, 2018.

Emergence of modern human behavior: Middle stone age engravings from South Africa by Christopher S. Henshilwood, et al. in Science, February 15, 2002.

I was able to access both through the library.


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