Ancient hashtag hailed world’s oldest drawing

Aged: Earth’s oldest drawing (centre) has several faint interlocking lines — an early hashtag?

Were ancient humans really just like us? Archaeologists have discovered a 73,000-year-old drawing in South Africa — evidence that early humans were more sophisticated than once thought.

Hashtags may seem like a symbol of the modern age, but they could be far older than we think.

Archaeologists have found the oldest drawing ever discovered, dating back 73,000 years. It is a cross-hatch pattern sketched onto stone with an ochre crayon.

It may look like a hashtag, but researchers do not know what the symbol means. Evidence suggests it is probably part of a bigger image: “It is definitely an abstract design [and] almost certainly had some meaning to the maker,” claims professor Christopher Henshilwood.

The Blombos Cave, in which it was found, has yielded many ancients treasures, including beads, stone tools, and seashells filled with red and yellow pigment (some call the cave a prehistoric paint factory).

It is just one of several locations that showcase the beauty of prehistoric art.

Ghostly hand-stencils, over 30,000 years old, have been found in caves in Indonesia and Spain. Some millennia later came the extraordinary Lascaux cave paintings: over 6,000 depictions of animals, humans and symbols dating back 17,000 years.

Were ancient humans really just like us?

Only human

Of course, some argue. Ancient art proves that our ancestors shared the same anxieties and impulses: from creativity to the desire not to be forgotten. Tweets, Snapchats, Instagram posts — they all contain the same subliminal message: “I am here!” Cave paintings preserve the same thing: an expression of presence and a desire to live on.

Nonsense, others respond. Through industry, economics and globalisation, modern man has broken decisively from the past. In fact, the day may come when we are no longer Homo sapiens at all. In the future, artificial intelligence could detach human consciousness from the physical world, and life could be lived entirely through computers and machines.

You Decide

  1. Is ancient art as good as modern art?


  1. Using a pencil, a crayon or a pen, draw a piece of art that you think summarises what it is like to live in the modern world. How does it compare to the ancient artworks above? What would archaeologists think if they found your picture in 10,000 years’ time?

Some People Say...

“Design announces the beginning of culture.”

Simon Schama

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Blombos Cave has long been a site of archaeological importance. It was used as a temporary living site by generations of hunter-gatherers.
What do we not know?
We do not know for sure that the marks were made for artistic purposes. “We can’t exclude the possibility that this could be the result of sharpening the tips of ochre pieces on stone,” say archaeologist Maxime Aubert.

Word Watch

The practice of using hashtags on social media originated on Twitter in 2007, primarily in tweets relating to forest fires in San Diego.
An earthy pigment typically varying from light yellow to brown or red.
Blombos Cave
Located in the Blombosfontein Nature Reserve on the southern coast of South Africa.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.