73,000-Year-Old Doodle May Be World's Oldest Drawing

A flake of stone from a cave in South Africa has experts debating when humans developed distinctly modern pursuits.

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This stone flake marked with ochre was discovered in Blombos Cave in South Africa.

Seventy-three thousand years ago, an early human in what is now South Africa picked up a piece of ocher and used it to scratch a hashtag-like mark onto a piece of stone.

Now, that stone has been discovered by an international team of archaeologists who are calling it the earliest known drawing in history.

According to their report, published today in the journal Nature, the stone predates the previous earliest known cave art—found in Indonesia and Spain—by 30,000 years. That would significantly push back the emergence of “behaviorally modern” activities among ancient Homo sapiens.

But how solid is the find, and can it really be labeled as art? Here’s what you need to know about the discovery and its possible implications.

What did the scientists find?

The archaeologists found a smooth flake of silcrete, a mineral formed when sand and gravel cement together. The inch-and-a-half-long flake is covered in scratch-like markings made with ocher, a hardened, iron-rich material that leaves behind a red pigment.

Where was the stone discovered?

The team found the flake of stone in a dense deposit of artifacts that early Homo sapiens left in Blombos Cave, which lies about 185 miles east of Cape Town, South Africa. Nestled inside the face of a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean, the cave seems to have given small groups of humans a place to rest for brief periods before they headed out to hunt and gather food.

About 70,000 years ago, the cave closed, sealing in the artifacts from...

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